WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD:
CRISIS AND LESSONS
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University
The Worldwide Church of God (WCG) has lost about 50,000 members and 500 pastors during this past year as a result of doctrinal changes in such areas as Sabbath keeping, holy days, distinction between clean and unclean meats, and tithing. The church's top administrators introduced these changes to bring their church more in line with the Protestant mainstream. Enormous financial losses have followed, causing the suspension of the church's telecast, The World of Tomorrow, the reduction in circulation of their outreach magazine, The Plain Truth, from seven million to less than half-a-million, and a substantial drop in enrollment at their Ambassador University in Big Sandy, Texas. The campus of Ambassador College with its famous auditorium, located in a prestigious section of Pasadena, has been put up for sale.
A group of ministers and elders of the WCG who could not in good conscience preach the new teachings convened in Indianapolis on April 30-May 2, 1995 and formed the United Church of God (UCG). David Hulme, former presenter of the telecast The World of Tomorrow, was chosen as interim Chairman of the Board. About 20,000 former WCG members have already joined the newly formed United Church of God, and their number is growing daily.
These rapid developments, which have so dramatically weakened and divided the Worldwide Church of God, give rise to two questions: (1) What factors contributed to this sudden split in the WCG? (2) What lessons can we Seventh-day Adventists learn from the sad experience of a church that has shared with us such beliefs as the Sabbath, clean and unclean meats, and the importance of obedience to God's law?
To find answers, I contacted some of the leaders of the newly formed United Church of God. During this past year it has been my privilege to become acquainted with most of their pastors, since they called me from across the country to order supplies of my three Sabbath books to meet the challenge of the anti-sabbatarian stance adopted by their former leaders in the WCG. I also received several invitations to share my research about the Sabbath at various of their rallies across the country. In May 28-29, 1995 I was invited to deliver several lectures at the well-attended "Jubilee 95: Friends of the Sabbath" convention, held at the picturesque Dana Point Hotel Resort in California. In December 24-27 I was invited again to a similar Sabbath conference held in San Antonio, Texas. For 1996 I have been invited to speak at six Sabbath conferences, three in the USA and three overseas, in Australia, England and Mexico. In spite of an admission fee of $50.00 per person, the convention halls werefull to capacity and stayed full through the last meeting.
In all my years of speaking around the world, I have never seen an audience so receptive and eager to deepen their understanding and experience of the Sabbath. A man told me at the San Antonio Sabbath Conference: "I have observed the Sabbath for thirty years and I would have never thought that I would fly across the country and pay to listen to lectures on the Sabbath. But now that the Sabbath is being challenged by our church leaders, I want to know more about its validity and value for my life." Sometimes it takes a crisis to cause us to reexamine the basis of our beliefs.
These personal contacts have given me the opportunity not only to gather information for this article, but also to appreciate the sincerity and commitment of pastors who lost their employment and of members who were disfellowshiped, all of them for choosing to remain true to their beliefs. While listening to their heart-rending stories of families split by the new teachings, I have often wondered what would happen to our church if our General Conference leaders were to promote abandoning such fundamental beliefs as the Sabbath, the sanctuary, the Spirit of prophecy, and biblical authority. What percentage of our Seventh-day Adventist pastors and members would rather be fired or be disfellowshiped than compromise their beliefs? No one can tell. But we can resolve to prevent such a thing from happening by learning from the experience of the Worldwide Church of God.
What Led to the Split
To understand what led to the split in the WCG, it is important to know the church's origin as well as some of its recent developments. The WCG was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. He had been ordained in 1931 in the Church of God (7th Day), where he served until 1937, when he established his own independent church, known at first as the Radio Church of God. Mr. Armstrong commenced publishing The Plain Truth magazine, and in 1947 he founded Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, to which he also moved the church headquarters.
Unlike the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church, who believed in a democratic form of church government, Mr. Armstrong believed in a hierarchical form of church government, in which he directly dictated the beliefs, practices and programs of the WCG until his death on January 16, 1986. The church is still governed in a hierarchical manner.
Before his death, Mr. Armstrong himself chose Joseph W. Tkach as his successor as Pastor General, bypassing several close assistants who had aspired to the position. Mr. Tkach himself died recently, on Sabbath, September 23, 1995, at age 68. He had appointed his son, Joseph Tkach, Jr., to succeed him. Incidentally, Joseph Tkach, Jr. and two of his close associates, have requested to meet with me here Andrews University. I will endeavor to submit to ADVENTIST REVIEW a brief report of this meeting which is scheduled for April 29, 1996.
For four or five years after his accession in 1986 the senior Mr. Tkach enjoyed overwhelming support from the leaders and members. But by 1992 signs of change began to appear.Gradually Mr. Armstrong's publications, especially his opus magnum, Mystery of the Ages, were withdrawn from circulation. (1)The new leadership modified the church's prophetic emphasis and adopted a more mainstream Protestant approach. Similarly, the emphasis on obedience to God's commandments shifted to the acceptance of salvation by grace, irrespective of works of obedience. In late 1994 began the assault on the Sabbath, holy days, distinction between clean and unclean meats, and tithing.
Regarding the Sabbath, Joe Tkach, Jr., whom his father had appointed to preside over the ministry, asserted in a study paper, published on February 14, 1995, that "The question is, Does God tell his new covenant people to rest on the seventh day? The answer is no, He doesn't." Evidently the young Tkach had adopted the popular view that the New Covenant releases us from the obligation to observe God's commandments.
Informed sources believe that these doctrinal changes were influenced by the so-called "Azusa Pacific University theologians," men whom the church had sponsored through graduate degrees in theology and biblical studies, mostly at Azusa Pacific University. The WCG needed qualified teachers to gain accreditation for their Ambassador University. Some of these young theologians became part of Joseph W. Tkach's administrative cabinet. Their avowed goal was to lead their church into the evangelical mainstream by doing away with beliefs such as Sabbath keeping which they considered as vestiges of the Old Covenant.
At first, church loyalists preferred to think that their Pastor General, Joseph W. Tkach, was unaware of the "New Theology" promoted by his administrative cabinet. Many others, however, recognized that the young "Azusa Pacific University theologians" were exerting an enormous influence on the senior Tkach (2). All doubts were finally resolved in December, 1994, when Joseph W. Tkach videotaped a sermon which was played in virtually all WCG congregations in early January, 1995. In that sermon, Tkach made it clear that he had embraced the new theology and was now prepared to enforce it by firing and/or disfellowshiping recalcitrant pastors and church members. Lessons to Be Learned
After reflecting on the events that have split the Worldwide Church of God, causing irreparable damage to its financial, educational and organizational structures worldwide, I feel that as Seventh-day Adventists - a people who also keep the Sabbath and who are preparing for Jesus' second advent-we can learn four [sic he lists only two] important lessons from this traumatic experience.
Danger of Hierarchical Structure. A first lesson to be learned from the experience of the WCG is that there is great danger in a hierarchical form of church government in which the decision-making process rests in the hands of a few administrators. Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach exercised almost pontifical authority in the WCG. A small administrative cabinet advised him, but ultimately he dictated what ministers ought to preach and what members ought to practice. Such an autocratic form of church government does not allow for any meaningful participation by the laity and clergy in the government of the church, and it rejects any type of dissent.
Several former ministers of the WCG informed me that they repeatedly requested Mr. Tkach to convene a ministerial council to discuss the doctrinal changes, but their request was rejected. Such autocratic policy can only alienate members and undermine the leadership's credibility. The strength of a church organization is measured by the degree of consensus and conviction among its members. These cannot be dictated from the top down; they must grow from the bottom up through involvement in the decision-making process.
The current hierarchical structure of the WCG reminds us of the Seventh-day Adventist administrative structure at the turn of the century. At that time a few General Conference leaders exercised what Ellen G. White called "kingly power." Largely as a result of her timely counsels, the 1901 General Conference session effected a much-needed reorganization which, among other things, allowed wider representation in the General Conference executive committee.
Church administrators will always be tempted to consolidate their power in order to facilitate the implementation of their policies and programs. This was one of the issues hotly debated at the just-concluded 56th General Conference session. History teaches us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To protect our leaders from the corrupting influence of too much power, it is imperative to preserve our current representative system of church government, with all its checks and balances.
Influence of Liberal Theologians. A second lesson to be learned from the recent experience of the WCG is that it takes only a few liberal theologians, placed in key positions, to influence doctrinal changes that can prove divisive to a church. According to informed sources, three key liberal theologians ("Azusa Pacific University theologians" (2)) close to Pastor General Tkach advised him to implement doctrinal changes.
The influence of liberal theologians who question the authority of the Bible and the validity of their denominational beliefs is felt in practically every denomination, including the Seventh-day Adventist church. This is part of the price churches are paying today for promoting higher education. To receive accreditation for their church-related colleges and universities, younger churches especially have to sponsor qualified students to earn graduate degrees in institutions of higher learning where humanism, secularism and higher criticism prevail. When exposed to these ideologies daily for several years, it is difficult for anyone to remain unscathed. So it is not surprising that some of the promising young people sent out by their churches to earn degrees in such institutions return with liberal views which are not compatible with their churches' teachings.
The solution to the problem is not in doing away with higher education. There is no merit in ignorance. Rather, the solution is to ensure that those who serve in academic institutions or administrative positions are committed to the beliefs and standards of the church they serve. People who during their graduate studies have become critical or even cynical of the beliefs of their church cannot and should not serve in their church.(3) To fulfill their church's expectations would require them to be untrue to their conscience and beliefs; teaching divergent beliefs would be unfair to the church that pays their salaries.
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University
Phone: (616) 471-2915 Fax: (616) 471-4013
(1) This order of "conspiracy theory" events, quite often retold in the UCG, differs from what those of us involved in the doctrinal reformation knew to be true. The Tkach's were very conservative, if there was a liberal, it was Joseph Tkach Sr's personal aid, Mike Feazell. And anyone that knows Mike, knows he's hardly an imposing and intimidating figure of humanity.
Joe Tkach Sr's understanding of the New Covenant teachings was fragmentary. As of December 1994 his understanding was incomplete causing him to make confusing and contradictory statements to the congregations. Joseph Tkach Jr told me in 1996, that he was even further behind in his understanding than his father was, as he was preoccupied with supervising the ministry. Also occupying both Tkach Sr and Jr's minds at that time was the fact that Tkach Sr was dying. A fact Joe Tkach Sr seems to have kept hidden from the rebels.
(2) A few leaders of the United Church of God also have credentials from Azuza Pacific University.
(3) Professor Bacchiocchi appears to be all for education, so long as that education doesn't inform the practice and beliefs of the church. Change is a terrible thing.