The road to Damascus?

National | Long written off as a cult, WCG takes an evangelical step

Issue: "Finster's unusual art," April 27, 1996

Seldom indeed does a 100,000-member sect, after deploring much of classic Christianity as pagan, veer dramatically toward evangelical orthodoxy and do so in a single decade. Yet evidence mounts that the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), an adventist sect based in Pasadena, Calif., is deliberately shedding anti-evangelical beliefs and now eagerly affirms conservative Christian doctrine. To be sure, the movement is not without consequent internal struggles and losses, but current leadership and much of the membership now claims insistently to be biblically orthodox in doctrine. Only a few years ago the Worldwide Church of God espoused British Israelism (which regards Anglo-Saxons as the lost tribes of Israel), emphasized Old Testament law and observance of Hebrew festivals, and insisted that one must keep all God's law to be saved, while scorning as pagan the Christian observance of Christmas and Easter. WCG spoke of Mother Rome and her Protestant Daughters as comprising Babylon the Great through an appeal to the book of Revelation. Distribution of the movement's free magazine, The Plain Truth, surpassed 7.5 million by 1995, and involvement in its Ambassador College correspondence course topped 300,000. WCG insisted that it was the only true church. The movement's founder in 1937, Herbert W. Armstrong, was a Sabbatarian who emphasized the "triple tithe" and other legalisms. After his death in 1986 more and more followers began questioning his teaching that only at the resurrection will believers be "born again." Sect leaders questioned Mr. Armstrong's teaching that humans are destined to become little gods. In opposition they affirmed a Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Since then the leadership has stressed that salvation is by grace through faith in the saving work of Christ. Thousands of WCG members, confused by the change in teaching, drifted into splinter groups-at least 130 ministers and over 30,000 members have left the group. Attendance at Old Testament festival observances dropped by tens of thousands once these activities were no longer regarded as necessary for salvation. Hank Hanegraaf, president of Christian Research Institute, and Dr. Ruth Tucker of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School are among those who consider the changes at WCG firm and decisive. Mr. Armstrong's son, Garner Ted, heir apparent to his father's work, left WCG in 1978 to form a different group, the Church of God International, based in Tyler, Texas. In 1979 the elder Armstrong named Joseph Tkach director of church administration, and in 1994 Mr. Tkach named his son, Joseph Jr., as his successor. Meanwhile financial support dropped 35 percent. The Worldwide Church of God retains certain distinctives, such as Sabbath-keeping and footwashing, but no longer considers them necessary for salvation. The church also believes that the impenitent are destroyed rather than face eternal torment in hell, a view it shares with many Seventh Day Adventists and others. A doctrinal statement published in 1993 and reprinted in 1995 states that Scripture is "the accurate record" of God's revelation (rather than itself revelatory) and that Scripture is authoritative in faith and morals (leaving ambiguous its full reliability in matters intersecting history and science). As the Worldwide Church of God continues its move in an evangelical direction, it still faces questions about its past. It isn't clear whether there will be an organizational apology for the deviant doctrines the movement long promoted. Evangelicals also face questions: Will they welcome into evangelical circles those leaders who can reorient the movement and who on an individual basis now affirm biblical beliefs? Editor's note: This article as originally published contained inaccurate information about Garner Ted Armstrong. The version above has been corrected.

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