From the Fringe to the Fold
For most of a half-century, no book on cults was complete without a chapter on the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. The late Walter Martin, in his classic "The Kingdom of the Cults," devoted 34 pages to the group, documenting how Armstrong borrowed freely from Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormon doctrines. And it was during my own research and writing on cults and new religions in 1988 that I became aware that something unusual was happening.
I had earlier written to the Pasadena headquarters requesting literature and statistics from the WCG but had received no response. Then came that phone call I will never forget. It was from Michael Snyder, assistant to the director of public relations, who had just discovered my letter and was calling to find out if there was still time to incorporate new information into my book.
The conversation that followed was nothing short of astonishing. I knew that Armstrong had died in 1986 and that Joseph Tkach, Sr., had succeeded him as pastor general. But I was not aware of changes that signaled a dramatic turnaround in the church.
From Snyder I learned that books written by Armstrong, once the defining literature of the movement, were being revised or taken out of print. I also learned that Joseph Tkach, Sr., had informed the church membership that he would not shrink from his responsibility to correct any doctrine proven to be in error. But most astonishing was Snyder's own testimony of faith, which convinced me he was a brother in Christ.
In the years following, I have had many more meetings with leaders in the church and have closely followed every change in doctrine and practice that has transformed this heretical sect into an evangelical denomination. I am taken aback by the transparency and open profession of faith by these Christians who, by their own testimony, have come out of a "fog of legalism."
It is not easy for a religious movement to make sweeping changes--or even less than sweeping changes. The Christian Reformed Church, for instance, has been ravaged over the last several years by the debate over women in office. Families and churches have split over the issue, and whole congregations have left the denomination.
Magnify that scenario many times over, and there is some sense of what is occurring in the WCG. There is pain and heartbreak in families and congregations, and thousands have made the wrenching decision to leave the only church they have ever known. But those remaining celebrate a new-found freedom in Christ while at the same time they mourn the loss of friends and family and the fractured church communities.
The "changes"--as they are referred to by insiders--are truly historic. Never before in the history of Christianity has there been such a complete move to orthodox Christianity by an unorthodox fringe church.
THE BUSINESSMAN PROPHET
But for the modest size of his movement, Herbert W. Armstrong was a well-known figure in religious circles for most of half a century. It was hard to find anyone who had not seen an issue of "The Plain Truth" magazine or heard The World Tomorrow radio and television broadcasts. In the minds of evangelicals, the WCG was viewed as a classic case study of an authoritarian cult, headed by a "prophet" founder who led his devoted followers away from biblical orthodoxy into manmade doctrines.
In many ways, Herbert W. Armstrong was larger than life. Salesman turned radio preacher, he had a compelling way with words. His fatherly wisdom and prophetic warnings drew millions of listeners--and, more important, more than two hundred thousand devoted followers who over the decades enlisted in his "one true church."