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Worldwide Church of God

The Worldwide Church of God (WCG), formerly the Radio Church of God, is a Christian church currently based in Glendora, California, United States. Founded in 1933 by Herbert Armstrong as a radio ministry, the WCG under Armstrong had a significant, and often controversial, influence on 20th century religious broadcasting and publishing in the United States and Europe, especially in the field of interpreting biblical end-time (eschatological) prophecies.

Within a few years after Armstrong's death in 1986 the succeeding church administration, led first by Joseph W. Tkach, Sr. and then his son, Joseph Tkach, Jr., changed the doctrines and teachings in which the WCG held fundamental differences with more mainstream Christianity. Many members and ministers left the WCG to form churches that conformed to most, if not all, of the church's former doctrines. The WCG claims 64,000 members in 860 congregations in about 90 countries as of June 2007. The WCG is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.

History

Beginnings as a radio ministry

The Worldwide Church of God is rooted in the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong, which some say stem from his earlier involvement in the Adventist movement of William Miller and followers (though Armstrong himself disputed this). He himself claimed that his teachings were the true teachings of the Bible, which he said had been replaced over the centuries by tradition through the seminaries and mistranslation. In 1927 Armstrong was baptized into a church of this movement, the Church of God. Armstrong was ordained by the Oregon Conference of the Church of God (Seventh-Day) in 1931, and began serving a congregation in Eugene, Oregon.

On January 7 1934 the "Radio Church of God" radio program began broadcasting on KORE in Eugene, Oregon, with Armstrong as host. It was essentially a condensed church service on the air, with hymn singing featured along with Armstrong's message, and was the launching point for what would become the church. Among Armstrong's claims that the British and American people were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, that God was not a Trinity but a family (Father and Son, but no Holy Ghost, as the Holy Spirit was believed by Armstrong to be the essence of God, not a separate person).

In 1933 the Church of God split, and Armstrong sided with the faction that located its headquarters in Salem, West Virginia. In 1937 the Church of God (Seventh-Day) revoked Armstrong's ministerial credentials, but he continued broadcasting. Armstrong moved to Pasadena, California and he incorporated his church first on March 3 1946 as the Radio Church of God and later as the Worldwide Church of God. He prophesied that the apocalypse would begin in 1936 (later postponed to 1943, then 1972, then indefinitely).

His message has been described by some critics as an eclectic mixture of cultic doctrine, Jewish observances and Seventh-day Adventism. The church strictly observed the Saturday Sabbath, annual festivals described in Leviticus and strongly advocated the clean meats of Leviticus 11. Members were asked to give up to 10 percent of their incomes to the church as a tithe, while also being told that another 10 percent was to be saved for annual festival observances, and every third year, an additional 10 percent had to be sent to the church. Dating outside the church was strongly frowned upon, there was a dress code for members while attending services, and the church believed that God did not intend certain things to be meant for human consumption. Those who refused to follow the church's guidelines were excommunicated. Members were influenced by church teachings not to wear make-up nor celebrate birthdays and were taught that the Bible warned believers not to celebrate traditionally accepted holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Halloween. A major component of Armstrong's theology was British Israelism—the view that America and Britain are the descendants of ancient Israel. Armstrong rejected as nonbiblical the traditional Christian views of heaven, hell, eternal punishment and salvation. Armstrong also taught that members of the WCG would actually become members of the God family themselves after the resurrection.

Protegés

In 1947 Ambassador College was founded in Pasadena by the Worldwide Church of God. The campus of the college served as the headquarters for the church. It was here that Armstrong met Stanley Rader in 1956. Rader stated that he was employed to sort the church's accounts, which he claimed had become disorganized. Armstrong reportedly was so impressed with Rader's work that, under his encouragement and patronage, Rader furthered his education by going to law school. Rader then graduated as valedictorian of his 1963 law school class at the University of Southern California Law School. Rader continued this relationship as special legal and financial advisor to Ambassador College and the Worldwide Church of God, working for them in a full-time capacity by 1969.

Armstrong had a son whom he was grooming to take over as head of the church upon the elder Armstrong's retirement or death, Garner Ted Armstrong. The younger Armstrong began to guest host the radio and then the television version of The World Tomorrow. As the elder Armstrong reviewed audience ratings and incoming donations from The World Tomorrow program, Garner Ted proved an increasingly obvious choice to become the public voice of the church.

The beginnings of change

The late 1960s saw the beginnings of change within the church. The broadcast of The World Tomorrow on Radio Luxembourg on January 7 1953 prompted Herbert Armstrong to view his ministry in the context of prophetic interpretation. Armstrong and Ambassador College graduate Herman L. Hoeh first detailed this interpretation in a 1956 booklet, 1975 in Prophecy!. This interpretative vision of his ministry consumed Herbert Armstrong, who now repackaged his radio program as The World Tomorrow. It also apparently had an impact on many others; including Michael Dennis Rohan, who cited Armstrong's work when questioned on the attempted destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1967.

1968 change of name

On January 5 1968 the corporate name of the church was changed to "Worldwide Church of God".

In 1970 the first of many groups to splinter from the Worldwide Church of God were founded. Carl O'Beirn of Cleveland, Ohio led what may be the first group, the Church of God (O'Brien), away from the Worldwide Church of God. Others followed that year, including John Kerley's Top of the Line ministry; the Restoration Church of God; the Church of God (Boise City) in Boise City, Oklahoma; Marvin Faulhaber's Sabbatarian group (also known as Church of God (Sabbatarian)); and the Fountain of Life Fellowship of James and Virginia Porter.

Ambassador International Cultural Foundation

During the sixties “Armstrong had sought to put into stronger action what he termed God’s 'way of give.’” To Armstrong and his students, this was generally said to include "the way of character, generosity, cultural enrichment, true education: of beautifying the environment and caring for fellow man." He began undertaking humanitarian projects, selecting underprivileged pockets around the world, which eventually led to the creation of the church-run Ambassador International Cultural Foundation (AICF) in 1975. The Foundation’s efforts reached into several countries, providing staffing and funds to fight illiteracy, create schools for the disabled, set up mobile schools, and provide funding and staffing for several archaeological digs at biblically significant sites. The auditorium he built for the church hosted, at highly subsidized ticket prices, hundreds of performances by noted artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Vladimir Horowitz, Bing Crosby, Marcel Marceau, and Bob Hope.

1972 and scandal

As 1972 approached it became clear that the events predicted by Herbert Armstrong would not come to pass. While the European Union was already an idea in the making, the various "states" of Europe were far from united, as the union itself was still another 20 years in the future. The Worldwide Church of God, however, experienced several scandals which could arguably be said to have brought Armstrong's second 19-year period to a close.

Garner Ted Armstrong began to lose favor with his father, Herbert Armstrong. The younger Armstrong was discontented with prophecies attached to a certain date, and wished to cease preaching the message that associated the U.S. and Britain with the Ten Lost Tribes. Garner Ted also spoke of greatly expanding the church's media ministry on the model of the Church of Christ, Scientist with its widely read Christian Science Monitor.

In a report in the May 15 1972 edition of TIME magazine, Herbert Armstrong was reported to have said that Garner Ted was "in the bonds of Satan." The elder Armstrong did not elaborate, but it was speculated that Herbert had to come to grips publicly with Garner Ted's alleged continuing problems with gambling and adultery with Ambassador College coeds. Garner Ted Armstrong was soon relieved of his star role within the church.

While Garner Ted Armstrong was being removed, Stanley Rader had been orchestrating the church's involvement in a number of corporations which Rader established. Critics saw Rader's moves as an attempt to seize control of the church. Rader characterized his involvement as that of an adviser and claimed that his advice was opening doors for Armstrong that a strict theological role would not have allowed for. Herbert Armstrong approved of the establishment of the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation (AICF), which Rader set up ostensibly to give the elder Armstrong a role as the "Ambassador for World Peace without portfolio."

As the church was experiencing internal crises, its external, public face was also crumbling. Church followers had anticipated the removal of church faithful to Petra, Jordan, to await the prophesied apocalypse. By 1972 it was evident that this was not going to occur. When combined with Garner Ted Armstrong's very public removal from the church, this failure of prophecy caused many within the church to lose confidence and withdraw. The church hastened to restore public confidence, and returned Garner Ted as host of The World Tomorrow a mere four months after his ouster.

The church continues

Despite the scandals of 1972 the church continued to grow in the 1970s with Herbert Armstrong still at the helm. In 1975 Armstrong baptized Stanley Rader, who until then had been a practicing Jew in spite of his association with the Christian church. Some felt that, under Rader's influence, Armstrong began to de-emphasize the Christological aspects of church doctrine, instead preaching a message of peace, brotherly love, and "giving and not getting." Others say that this approach was to announce the coming Kingdom of God and mankind's duty to that end. The church began to teach of humanity's being guided by a "Great Unseen Hand from Someplace."

Widowed by the death of Loma eleven years earlier, Armstrong married Ramona Martin, a woman nearly fifty years younger, in 1977 and moved to Tucson, Arizona. While Armstrong administered church business through Stanley Rader from his Arizona retreat, the church continued to be headquartered in Pasadena.

With Garner Ted Armstrong resuming his role within the church, the rivalry between the younger Armstrong and Stanley Rader intensified. The adultery problems that reportedly drove Garner Ted from the church before had reportedly continued unabated. In 1978 Garner Ted Armstrong was disfellowshipped a final time. Garner Ted moved to Tyler, Texas, and there founded a splinter group, the Church of God International.

Receivership crisis

Garner Ted Armstrong blamed Stanley Rader for his two-time ouster from his father's church. Garner Ted and other former and discontented members of the Worldwide Church of God prompted the State of California to investigate charges of malfeasance by Rader and others involved with the AICF. By 1979 California Attorney General George Deukmejian had brought civil charges against the church, and the church was placed into an investigative financial receivership for one year.

The group of dissidents also gained the attention of Mike Wallace, who investigated the church in a report for 60 Minutes. Using documentary evidence obtained, Wallace brought to light lavish secret expenditures, conflict of interest insider deals, posh homes and lifestyles in the higher ranks, and the heavy involvement of Stanley Rader in financial manipulation. Wallace invited Rader to appear on 60 Minutes on April 15 1979.

Rader began by answering many questions by Wallace with his confident, characteristic unabashed aplomb. However, Wallace completely surprised Rader with a secret tape recording, in which Herbert Armstrong had alleged Rader was attempting to take over the church after Armstrong's death, reasoning that the donated tithe money might be quite a "magnet" to some evangelists. Perhaps sensing at this point that it would no longer do him any good to continue answering questions, Rader jumped up, abruptly told Wallace the interview was over, and left immediately to speak to the press waiting outside.

Rader, with the approval of Herbert Armstrong, was spending millions to fend off any financial audit or examination of the Church's income and expenditures by litigating the issue all the way to the United States Supreme Court, several times, unsuccessfully. Having lost in the courts, as a last ditch effort, perhaps to save himself from scrutiny and to prevent the receivership from going into further testimony, Rader lobbied the California legislature to force the California Attorney General to drop the charges against the church and him. Under Rader's lobbying, the California State Legislature passed legislation known as the Petris bill, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, which effectively gave Rader and the Worldwide Church of God a special "legal loophole" from any outside judicial scrutiny or further civil investigation from the Office of the California Attorney General.

Rader and Armstrong, then, were relieved of any further concern about civil liability or any outside exposure of their own internal financial dealings as the directors of a California religious corporation. In trying to defend his fight against the investigation, Rader wrote the 1980 self-exculpatory polemic "Against the Gates of Hell: The Threat to Religious Freedom in America" arguing that his legal fight with the Attorney General was more about religious freedoms rather than about abuse of public trust or fraudulent misappropriation of tithe funds.

The church received vindication of its position when, in denying a request for fees by the dissidents' attorney, Hillel Chodos, the Second Court of Appeals said, "We are of the opinion that the underlying action [i.e., the State-imposed receivership] and its attendant provisional remedy of receivership were from the inception constitutionally infirm and predestined to failure.

Departure of Rader

Stanley Rader left his positions within the church in 1981. While Rader was able to legally, then politically, stiff arm the judicial investigation of church financial misappropriation, he could not prevent the collapse of AICF. A lawsuit had been filed against Steven Spielberg and George Lucas alleging that the pair stole the plot for Raiders of the Lost Ark from AICF. When the lawsuit went nowhere, AICF collapsed. Meanwhile, the church was eager to sever its ties from AICF, as the Foundation had been producing works which were not in keeping with church doctrine. Rader parted church leadership amicably, and reportedly received a six figure financial package (or golden handshake) upon leaving his post.

Era of transition and major doctrinal changes

On January 16 1986 Herbert W. Armstrong died in Pasadena, California. Shortly before his death Mr. Armstrong named Joseph W. Tkach Sr. to succeed him as the leader of the church.

As early as 1988 Joseph W. Tkach Sr. began to make doctrinal changes. Doctrinal changes were made quietly and slowly at first, but then openly and radically in January 1995. Changes are presented as new understandings of Christmas and Easter , Babylon and the harlot , Anglo-Israelism , the Saturday Sabbath and many other doctrines.

In general, Tkach Sr. directed the church theology towards mainstream evangelical Christian belief. It was extremely difficult for many members of the church to understand and accept the doctrinal changes. This caused much disillusionment among the membership, and another rise of splinter groups. During the tenure of the elder Joseph Tkach Sr., the church dropped in membership by about 50%. His son, Joseph Tkach Jr., succeeded him after his death in 1995. Under Tkach Jr.'s administration, the church issued an apology for past mistakes in doctrine.

Eventually all of Herbert Armstrong's writings were withdrawn from print by the Worldwide Church of God. In the 2004 video production Called To Be Free Greg Albrecht (WCG evangelist; former dean of WCG's Ambassador College) declared Herbert Armstrong to be both a false prophet and a heretic. While the WWG leadership has apologized over false teachings, no overt move has been made towards publicly admitting the past excesses of its leadership, nor the psychological abuses heaped on the members for practices such as 'disfellowshipment' or slander of members who were removed from the church.

Teachings under Herbert Armstrong

The Gospel

Armstrong taught that the religions of the world had lost the essential knowledge of the purpose for human life, and that God led him through careful and diligent study of scripture to a special understanding of the Bible and its end-time prophecies. Armstrong's express purpose, and that of the WCG, was to spread this restored knowledge throughout the world as a prerequisite to the second coming of Jesus to Earth. The gospel included "The good news of the soon coming Kingdom of God," a 1000-year utopia under Jesus' rule, and warnings of the coming Great Tribulation and Day of the Lord (destruction of human civilization), from which God's true Church would be protected in a yet unknown "place of safety."

Mr. Armstrong taught that the Beast of Revelation represented the Roman Empire, which would be revived within his lifetime as a federation of ten "United States of Europe," and that the harlot riding the beast represented the Roman Catholic Church . The current Worldwide Church of God repudiates these claims as based upon speculative bigotry coupled with amateur historical and theological understandings.

Under Herbert Armstrong, these themes were broadcast on weekly 30 minute radio and television series, The World Tomorrow, and were published in numerous books, booklets, and in his widely distributed magazine The Plain Truth.

Beliefs about God and his Church

  • Two great Beings, God the Father and the Word (the Lord) make up the God family. The Holy Spirit, the power and mind of God, is God's very spirit or energy that could be given by God to dwell in those people he calls.
  • The God family created everything in the universe.
  • The Bible (Old and New Testaments) is the complete and infallible revelation by God to man, although humanity's understanding of the Bible is fallible.
  • The Word (Old Testament "Lord") was made flesh as Jesus Christ, was sacrificed for the forgiveness of our sins, was resurrected, and established and guided the new covenant Church.
  • The Worldwide Church of God was God's only true church.
  • Herbert W. Armstrong was an apostle of God, a latter-day type of Elijah.
  • Church members were selected and called into the Church by God. Members were baptized as adults by complete immersion in water, and by the laying on of hands they received God's Holy Spirit.
  • Man was created to develop the character to join God's family, as children of God.
  • Man is saved by grace, but man must also spend a lifetime of overcoming sin and practicing obedience to God's laws. Satan and his demons do everything in their power to prevent this from happening.
  • Three resurrections: 1. Those who die in the faith (called by God in this life); 2. Those who die but were not called by God (the vast majority of humanity); 3. Those who were called by God, but who reject their calling to salvation.
  • Not everyone is to be called for salvation in this life. Those not called for salvation will be called in the second resurrection.
  • The Church government was governed from the top down. The final tier of this government was the family unit: the husband was the head of the household, as Jesus was the head of the Church.

Beliefs about sin and the commandments

Sin is the transgression of God's law. The penalty for sin is death. The law consists of instructions from God in the Bible, including Old Testament laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • Clean and unclean meats
  • Tithing—three separate tithes
  • Non-observance of pagan or Christian traditions (Christmas , Easter, Halloween, and birthday celebration)
  • God's Holy Days:

* Passover
* Feast of Unleavened Bread
* Pentecost
* Feast of Trumpets
* Day of Atonement
* The Feast of Tabernacles
* Last Great Day the eighth day after Tabernacles begins; Leviticus 23:36,39 and John 7:37-38

Tithing

The early Worldwide Church of God used a three-tithe system, under which members were expected to give a tithe or ten percent "of their increase," usually interpreted as a family's income.

  • The first tithe, 10% of a member's total income, was sent to church headquarters to finance "the work", which was all operations of the church, as well as broadcasting and publishing the church's message.
  • The second tithe was saved by the individual member to fund the member's (and his family's) observance of the annual holy days, especially the 8-day-long Feast of Tabernacles. Unlike the first tithe, these funds were not sent into the church but retained by the member.
  • A third tithe was required only in the third and sixth years of a personal seven-year tithing cycle, and it was also sent to headquarters. The third tithe was used to support the indigent, widows, and orphans as needed.

The church also gathered funds in the form of donations from "co-workers," those who read the church's free literature or watched the weekly TV show but did not actually attend services.

In contrast to many other churches' religious services, the practice of the WCG was not to pass around offering plates during weekly church services, but only during holy day church services (seven days each year). These funds were considered "freewill offerings" and regarded as entirely separate from regular tithes.

Under Joseph W. Tkach Sr., although still strongly recommended, the mandatory nature of the church's three-tithe system was abolished, and it was suggested that tithes could be calculated on net, rather than gross, income. Afterwards, church income declined precipitously (though membership also dropped at the same time). Today the Worldwide Church headquarters has downsized for financial survival. Facing possible bankruptcy, the church liquidated its high maintenance real estate properties, such as Ambassador College, and other auctionable inventory to pay for current headquarters expenditures.

To further economize, the church has sold its properties in Pasadena and purchased an office building in Glendora, California. Church marketing strategy and advertising has changed significantly since the days when the Plain Truth magazine was distributed worldwide, to millions upon request, without charge, to anyone who simply asked for it. Formerly, the church's membership sent all tithe donations directly to the headquarters in Pasadena, CA, meeting in rented halls on Saturdays such as public school buildings, dance halls, hotels and other venues. Under the new financial reporting regime, Worldwide Chairman CEO Joseph Tkach, Jr. permits local churches to use some funds for local purposes, such as constructing local church buildings for use by the congregations.

As of 2007, 85% or more of all congregational donations stay in the local area, with 15% going to the church's headquarters in Glendora for ministerial training and support, legal services, and denominational administration.

Criticisms

Under Armstrong's leadership, the Worldwide Church of God was considered by many to be theologically a cult with unorthodox and, to most Christians, heretical teachings. The WCG rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, regarding it as a pagan concept absorbed into mainstream Christianity. Critics also claimed that the WCG did not proclaim salvation by grace through faith alone, but rather required works as part of salvation. The late Walter Martin, in his classic The Kingdom of the Cults, devoted 34 pages to the group, claiming that Armstrong borrowed freely from Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon doctrines.

Related denominations

From the 1970s through to the 1990s several groups that adhered to Armstrong's teachings separated from the Worldwide Church of God. Due to the significant doctrinal changes which occurred in the WCG throughout the 1990s, the largest percentage of ministers and members left the WCG during this decade. This resulted in the formation of many denominations, most notably the Philadelphia Church of God (1989), Global Church of God, the Living Church of God (1993, 1998), United Church of God (1995), and the Restored Church of God (1998).

The United Church of God (UCG) is the largest of these denominations. In 1995 former WCG directors and pastors were among 150 "elders" who gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana to select a board of directors and a chairman, David Hulme, who had been one of the presenters of the WCG's television program, The World Tomorrow, and had also served the WCG in public relations. By the end of 1995 the number of those affiliated with the new UCG movement was estimated to be 17,000, far exceeding the size of any of the other splinter groups.

Current organizational structure

The Worldwide Church of God is established under a hierarchical, non-voting form of government. The chief ecclesiastical officer is termed the Pastor General, while the chief corporate executive officer of the denomination is termed the President. Historically, Pastors General, as chairmen of their board, have appointed their own successor without representative vote from the membership. Ecclesiastical or corporate governance issues are within the decision-making jurisdiction of the Pastor General, who has the power to appoint, as well as terminate, the Council of Elders and the board members of the corporation, with or without cause or notice. This has remained an area of concern even among those who applaud the church's doctrinal changes.

The denomination's ecclesiastical policies are determined by its Advisory Council of Elders (ACE), which is, in turn, appointed and controlled by the Pastor General. A Doctrinal Advisory Team, currently chaired by J. Michael Feazell, may report to the Advisory Council on the church's official doctrinal statements, epistemology, or apologetics. Under ecclesiastical bylaws, the Pastor General may "pocket veto" doctrinal positions he determines to be heretical. However, President Tkach is also a member of the Doctrinal Advisory Team, and so he is aware of and involved in the activities of that committee. (See section 7 of the Worldwide Church of God Church Administration Manual )

The Worldwide Church of God maintains national offices and satellite offices in multiple countries. Pastor General Joseph Tkach, Jr. periodically travels worldwide in personal appearance campaigns to congregations in diverse intercontinental areas, such as Great Britain, Africa, and the Philippines. However, membership and tithe income originates primarily from the eastern United States.

In the United States, denominational contact with local assemblies or local church home small group meetings, i.e. cell churches, is facilitated by district superintendents, each of which is responsible for a large number of churches in a geographical region (such as Florida or the Northeast) or in a specialized language group (such as Spanish-speaking congregations).

Local churches are led by a senior pastor, pastoral leadership team (with one person designated as a congregational pastoral leader), each of which is supervised by a district pastoral leader. Most local church groups retain the long-standing traditional policy of meeting in leased or rented facilities for meetings or services. The trend since 2000, however, has been to adopt a local church setting blending into the local milieu with headquarters retaining administrative oversight functions. Some senior pastors are responsible for a single local church, but many are responsible for working in two or more churches. Church government now mandates a local Advisory Council, which includes a number of volunteer ministry leaders (some of whom are also called deacons), and often additional elders or assistant pastors. As of 2005, the church established a new computer system of financial checks and balances for church budgets at the local level. Salary compensation for the paid local church pastor, if available, is determined by the church treasurer in California.

In 2005 the church announced it was considering another name change, after more than a decade of controversy and upheaval in the wake of doctrinal changes made following the death of Herbert Armstrong. In 2006 it was announced that the likely new name would be Grace International Communion. However, nothing has been heard of this since, although it is now used by a group of WCG churches in the Philippines.

See also

Notes

References

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