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A Compelling Story of Grace and Liberty We believe in the life-changing influence of grace and truth. Rarely, however, do we see it demonstrated with such explosive power as in the case of the Worldwide Church of God. Told by one of its top leaders, here is the remarkable inside story of what happened when a well-known cult grappled with the truths of the New Testament. The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God is far more than the fascinating account of a church’s journey from darkness to light and from bondage to grace. It is a blazing testimony to the gospel’s matchless powera power able to transform hearts and lives that seem beyond reach…and fully capable of changing us.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of GodThe Remarkable Story of a Cult's Journey from Deception to Truth
By J. Michael Feazell
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Zondervan
All right reserved.
A Crack in the Dam
As has been said, the Church is like Noah's ark," I read aloud, quoting from Charles Colson's The Body. "The stench inside would be unbearable if it weren't for the storm outside." The group laughed. I continued: "And as imperfect and even repugnant as we find it at times, we need to acknowledge that it is through this church of fact that truth is being proclaimed and portrayed." As I read, I hoped Colson's words might find fertile soil in my audience:
Not always clearly; not always unequivocally. I cringe when I hear a church leader does some dumb or dreadful thing. I want to scream that the National Council of Churches isn't speaking for me (and it isn't). But somehow through all of the muddle, the message is kept alive. People often come to church for all the wrong reasons, but God touches them, and nearly apostate churches are resurrected. God does it, using us just as we are.
I struggled to control my trembling voice. God had touched our church. He had touched me. His grace had come upon us completely unannounced, and he had transformed our hearts before we even knew what was happening. I read on: "The church of fact is always struggling to conform to the church of faith, and the Christian must live in the midst of this tension-a faithful part of the universal and the particular, of the visible and invisible, of the faith and the fact."
I fought back the tears. So many thoughts flooded my mind. God loved us in spite of our confusion and doctrinal error. He had come to our church and redeemed us in spite of our self-righteousness, our exclusivity, and our tendency to be judgmental.
How far we have come, I thought. The very fact I could be reading to this group from Colson, a Protestant, was a miracle. The fact that many of these ministers and wives were ready to hear Colson's insights was a miracle. And the fact that Colson's next words had been so powerfully played out in this very group was also a miracle:
Admittedly, the pettiness and failures, the division and discord, can be disheartening at times. What a sorry mess we mortals often make of things in the name of the church! But our comfort comes from God's promise that He will build His church-sometimes in extraordinary ways.
The group was a conference of pastors of the Worldwide Church of God. And the miracle was the amazing story of the Holy Spirit's liberating and transforming work in the renowned church, called a cult by some, founded by media evangelist Herbert W. Armstrong.
"Mr. Armstrong Died This Morning"
The story had begun some ten years earlier on January 16, 1986, at about 7:30 in the morning. I was about to leave for work when the phone rang. My wife, Victoria, answered, exchanged a few words with the caller, and gave the phone to me.
"It's Mr. Tkach," she said.
Joseph W. Tkach Sr. was my boss. I had known him since 1966. I was sixteen when his employer, the Worldwide Church of God, transferred his family from Chicago to Pasadena, California. As an ordained minister, he had been brought to Pasadena to take classes in the denomination's Ambassador College and to serve in the Los Angeles congregation. His son Joe and I were in tenth grade, and before long we were close friends.
Now, twenty years later, the senior Tkach was director of church administration for the denomination, and I was his executive assistant. He was also 93-year-old Herbert Armstrong's personally chosen successor.
"Mr. Armstrong died this morning," he told me. His voice was solemn and shaky. "I have been calling the Council of Elders. We will need to notify the field ministers and the news media. I'll see you at the office."
Tkach, alternating with Armstrong's aide, Aaron Dean, and a nursing staff, had for weeks been spending nearly every evening, night, and early morning with the ailing Armstrong in the pastor general's residence on the Ambassador College campus in Pasadena. He kept Armstrong company, helped him with personal needs, and listened to his advice and instructions. He was there the morning Armstrong died.
Tkach had grown close to Herbert Armstrong during the final year of Armstrong's life. The aging Armstrong had come to the point where, he told Tkach and others, he felt he could trust no one. "I know you will take good care of the ministry," he told him. Tkach recounted to me many times how much Armstrong appreciated his being there. Armstrong had appointed Tkach to succeed him as president and pastor general of the church, and he wanted to be sure he had passed on all the insight he could during his final weeks and days.
"I can't fill his shoes. But, Father, I aim to walk in his footsteps," Tkach prayed at the special church headquarters employee meeting the morning of Armstrong's death. The church was numb, but the church was not shaken. "The transition was so smooth," I heard again and again from ministers and members.
Sermons were given about Joshua following in Moses' footsteps. "Be strong and of good courage," pastors and members were telling Tkach, echoing Yahweh's words to Joshua after Moses' death.
Upon assuming his new role as president and pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, Tkach asked me to continue in the role of his executive assistant. I was glad to serve. I wanted to help him see that the teachings of Herbert Armstrong were maintained and that the church would "make herself ready" for the return of Christ. Little did I know what lay ahead.
The Journey Begins
When Herbert Armstrong died, my entire focus was to help Joseph Tkach Sr. maintain Armstrong's teachings and ministry. If anything needed to be changed, I believed, it would only be details.
Within weeks, however, the first challenge was raised to Armstrong's presumed absolute insight on the Scriptures. Mark Kaplan, an Ambassador College professor of Hebrew, raised a question about Armstrong's dogmatic teaching that the children of Israel did not depart from Egypt on the same night as they ate the Passover meal but on the next night.
I distributed Kaplan's papers to the members of the Council of Elders, and the consensus was that Kaplan was right. The preponderance of scriptural evidence lay in favor of the millennia-old Jewish viewpoint (what a surprise!).
The crack was in the dam. Armstrong was wrong about a point he had taught with particular force and dogmatism. Tkach decided that the best course of action was to delete the offending section from the church booklet about the annual holy days and officially inform the pastors that the issue is merely historical, not doctrinal, and therefore of no consequence.
Most pastors accepted the action, but there was something uneasy about the whole thing. Armstrong had been so dogmatic on the issue, using his characteristic capital letters, italics, and underlining to make his point.
Now Tkach, holding the office of "God's apostle," the only person on earth through whom God brings doctrine into his church, had neatly thrown out a dogmatic Armstrong teaching. How can one "God's only true apostle" change the teaching of the other "God's only true apostle"?
Small or "merely historical" as this particular point may have been, later changes would raise the larger question: How can Tkach have the authority to change Armstrong's teaching? And then the conundrum: If Armstrong was wrong about that, then could he have been wrong about appointing Tkach? And worse, but still unthinkable at this early stage: If Armstrong really was wrong about something he felt God had revealed to him, how could he have called himself "God's only true apostle"?
Spokesman Club Manual
The next lesson in coming to see Armstrongism in a new light was the revision of the church's Spokesman Club manual. The Spokesman Club manual had been the mainstay of the men's discipleship experience for decades. Based on the rules of the Toastmaster's Club, the Spokesman Club was a leadership training ground for Worldwide Church of God (WCG) men. A series of speech assignments, designed to improve communication skills and encourage personal growth and leadership, were outlined in the manual.
One of Tkach's first goals was to dismantle the authoritarian approach to government in the church, which meant that the Spokesman Club manual needed revision on two counts: its authoritarian style, and its hyperbolic language that promised near perfection and amazing success to anyone who followed its rules carefully. Setting out to edit the manual was an eye-opening lesson in where we had been as a church. I had never really analyzed our church literature with the eye of a critic. Now it was my job to make sure our literature did not promote authoritarianism and that all content was accurate and biblically defensible. I really had no thought at all about doctrine at this point. My assumption was that Herbert Armstrong was correct on every important doctrinal issue. I pitied those poor souls who could not understand the difference between important doctrine and mere "semantical issues."
As we revised the Spokesman Club manual, our booklet editor, Ronald D. Kelly (now church controller), remarked, "I never realized how these things sounded before." That is not surprising. We had always tended to read the church's literature as prima facie true-already believing its truth and authority before we even began reading it. Now for the first time we were reading for the specific purpose of editing its accuracy. The results were disconcerting, to say the least. As we finished each booklet, we were almost afraid to start on the next.
We did not choose the order of booklets to revise. That was purely a function of inventory. As booklets ran out of stock and came up for reprinting, they had to be reviewed. It seemed that every time we reviewed a booklet, we found serious problems with it. And even then, for the first few years, our revisions did not go deep enough. Some booklets, like The Missing Dimension in Sex, underwent major revision every time it came up for reprinting as our understanding increased. Finally, it had to be removed from inventory, a fate that eventually befell every one of the more than eighty booklets the Worldwide Church of God was regularly mailing out in 1986.
As doctrinal problems became more apparent, however, even some in-stock booklets had to be removed from inventory. That was the case with Armstrong's powerful attack on Protestant Christianity, Just What Do You Mean-Born Again?
Greek Words, English Words
Herbert Armstrong and scholarship did not mix well. He continually ridiculed what he branded as "this world's degrees," "so-called higher education," and people who "fancied themselves as scholars." He encouraged church members not to send their children to the colleges and universities of "this world," but only to the church's Ambassador College. Many of Armstrong's doctrinal errors sprang directly from his ignorance of biblical scholarship and sound methods of biblical interpretation.
Early in 1987 I received a memo from Kyriakos Stavrinides, a church minister and professor of classics and Greek at Ambassador College, citing major problems with Armstrong's booklet Just What Do You Mean-Born Again? My first reaction was to roll my eyes and mumble, "Here we go again." I reviewed the memo with Joseph Tkach Sr., and at Tkach's request went to discuss it with Stavrinides.
Armstrong taught that Christians are not finally "born again" until they receive glorified bodies at the resurrection. Until then, Armstrong asserted, Christians are only "begotten," which he took to mean "merely conceived" but not yet born. Stavrinides explained that the Greek word transliterated gennao does mean "begotten," as Herbert Armstrong taught. But contrary to Armstrong's belief, the English word begotten does not mean "conceived." Rather, the word begotten refers to live birth. In this case, Armstrong's confusion lay in his misunderstanding of 400-year-old King James English, not in the meaning of the Greek word. On this simple mistake of English grammar, Herbert Armstrong had built the entire edifice of his doctrine that "you are not finally born again until the resurrection."
It was not just the false doctrine that was so rankling. It was Armstrong's attitude about it and his presentation of it. His "rightness" on this point gave him, he believed, the right to condemn any who disagreed with him as "falsely so-called Christians" who were deceived by the devil. Armstrong's challenges to the "professing" Christian world were boldly emphasized by his characteristic advertising font styles:
WHY cannot people understand? It's hard to believe, but YOUR BIBLE says that this whole world is DECEIVED! Incredible though it seems, that is true! Yes, even the clergy!
All the clergy except Armstrong, that is. This is what happens when a person, in his or her own mind, becomes "God's special representative." I have to warn any Christian-if the leader of your church or group begins to make noise about being God's special mouthpiece, or the "only one" preaching some particular message or some particular way, then my advice to you is to move on down the road.
Depression and Discouragement
By early 1989, I had reached a low point both emotionally and spiritually. I was being confronted with error after error in Armstrong's theology. Doctrinal and theological questions were continually being posed to the church administration department and to the pastor general's office from church ministers and members. As Tkach Sr. and I struggled to respond to these questions with scriptural honesty and integrity, I was beginning to realize that the Worldwide Church of God was not, after all, the "one and only true church" and that Herbert Armstrong was not God's only true servant on earth.
There was never a problem discussing these issues openly with Joseph Tkach Sr. Still, even though he put a great deal of trust in me as his primary assistant, he nevertheless received a free flow of input from a great many people besides me in the administration of the church, and rightly so. He could not help but be at least somewhat influenced by the grave concerns expressed to him about me and my "liberal ideas" by longtime ministers who feared the "dangerous direction" the doctrinal changes were going. By early 1989, changes had already taken place in the church's doctrines regarding the use of the medical profession, women's use of cosmetics, and celebration of birthdays. These changes, which were already traumatic enough for the 150,000-member church, as well as the inevitable rumors of more to come, began to create a sense that the floodgates were about to be opened.
Excerpted from The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God by J. Michael Feazell Copyright © 2003 by Zondervan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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