Beliefs Politics

TOP STORY: WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD: Once regarded as cult, a quirky church embraces evangelical beli

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When Dennis Girouard joined the Worldwide Church of God 10 years ago, he accepted many of the doctrines that had caused evangelicals and others to label the denomination a cult.

The church taught that the United States and Britain were heirs to God’s covenant with Israel. It taught that salvation depended on observing a Saturday sabbath, following Old Testament dietary laws and giving up to 30 percent of one’s income to church and charity. It rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and proclaimed itself the only true Christian fellowship.

Then came the revolution.

Ever since the 1986 death of Herbert W. Armstrong, the charismatic founder of the Pasadena, Calif.-based church, the denomination’s new leaders have been reviewing his unique doctrines. Armstrong’s successor, Joseph Tkach Sr., announced before his death last year that the church was rejecting those doctrines and embracing traditional evangelical Christianity.

The changes were dramatic, and often devastating, for the church, as members fiercely debated doctrine and a large minority left. Others, like Girouard, embraced the changes, concluding the Bible could not support many of Armstrong’s teachings.”It was like dropping a 12-pound weight on your head,”said Girouard, of Waltham, Mass.”It was like, was this scripture in the Bible the whole time, and I never saw it?” Girouard said he and others in his Boston-area congregation pored over their Bibles, debated in small groups and argued by computer in what has been called the first church schism to be aggravated, if not caused, by the Internet. And once one doctrine fell, he said, the rest tumbled”like dominos.” The church has disavowed many of its former teachings in the bluntest of terms.”Our flawed doctrinal understanding clouded the plain gospel of Jesus Christ and led to a variety of wrong conclusions and unscriptural practices,”Tkach’s son and successor, Joseph Tkach Jr., said in a written statement last spring.”We have much to repent of and apologize for.” In a televised talk to church members in October, Tkach added,”We’ve had to … realize that our version of church history is not true, it’s bogus. We’ve had to realize there aren’t simple answers to everything and there’s more than one way to interpret the symbolic Scriptures.” But the transformation deeply divided the church. U.S. membership plummeted to 50,962 as of July, compared with 89,000 in 1986. Financial donations dropped 52 percent over the last 18 months. About 140 of the church’s 375 pastors left. Many former members joined splinter groups or gave up on the church altogether.

There have been financial effects as well. More than 400 church employees lost their jobs. And in May, the church magazine, Plain Truth, switched from free to paid subscriptions, dropping from a peak circulation of 8 million in the church’s heyday to 95,000 today. The church has canceled concerts in its once highly regarded Ambassador Auditorium and is contemplating selling its headquarters building in Pasadena. Because of the cutbacks, the church maintains that it is in good financial health.

The experience of Girouard’s Boston-area congregation was common: Half the members left, he said, including the minister and a deacon.

Many former members felt the changes betrayed the church’s legacy. The largest new group, the United Church of God, claims at least 17,000 members and 450 ministers in over 300 congregations worldwide.”This group of people felt it did not want to go in that direction”of doctrinal changes, said David Hulme, president of the Arcadia, Calif.-based UCG.”It was content with its belief and practice and was left with really no option but to find some sort of separation.” But many who stayed in the Worldwide Church called the changes refreshing.”I’m a lot happier,”said Joanne Weisman of West Orange, N.J., who said she feels a new sense of freedom without such religious obligations as finishing all her chores before the sabbath begins.”I’m not frantic anymore from worrying,”she said.

Micah Harris of Somerset, Bermuda, also applauded the changes.”You can see why,”the 23-year-old artist said, pointing to his four earrings and long hair, both contrary to codes that until recently had been sternly enforced. Women are now allowed to wear makeup.”God doesn’t look at the outer appearance, he looks at the heart,”Harris said while in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a tourist town where the church recently held one of several regional conferences marking the”Feast of Tabernacles.” The festival _ a week of services, workshops and recreation based on an Old Testament rite _ remains the highlight of the churchyear, although attendance is no longer obligatory. And observing the Saturday sabbath is likewise voluntary, as the church now emphasizes salvation is only through faith in Jesus, where it once emphasized ritual practices.”Certain things we felt we should do and enjoy and appreciate, we continue to enjoy and appreciate, but without the feeling that you do this or die,”said Northeast Regional Pastor Stephen Botha.

Botha said he had questioned some of the church’s doctrines long before the current changes, such as its condemnation of other Christian denominations. But pragmatically, he said, such doctrines often didn’t affect church life.”It’s been a wonderful fellowship and we’d just deal with some of those things,”he said.”They weren’t in your face.” The United Church of God’s Hulme, however, disagreed with the notion that the mandated observance of Old Testament law, as preached by Armstrong, prescribed a grudging”works-oriented church.”Rather, he said,”The Holy Spirit at work within us convicts us to do these things.” But Pastor James Rosenthal, head of a church in Albany, N.Y., called the changes in the Worldwide Church”similar to what the early church went through”when the first Christians decided not to require Gentile converts to follow Jewish religious laws.

The Worldwide Church began scrupulously adhering to such laws, Rosenthal said, because”Mr. Armstrong believed what Jesus said, `Man shall live by every word of God, not just bread alone,'”and concluded that Old Testament commandments were still in force.

Armstrong, an advertiser-turned-minister, founded the denomination in the 1930s and became a well-known radio preacher. He retained firm control over the church until his death 10 years ago.

The current schisms are not the first. Most notably, in 1978, Armstrong banished his son and heir apparent, Garner Ted Armstrong, after Garner Ted’s involvement with a number of women came to light. The younger Armstrong went on to head his own Church of God International.

While the most recent upheaval has cost the Worldwide Church dearly, the once-isolated denomination has received applause from evangelicals for its willingness to change.”Never before in the history of Christianity has there been such a complete move to orthodox Christianity by an unorthodox fringe church,”Ruth A. Tucker, a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., wrote in Christianity Today magazine.

Several WCG officials enrolled in academic programs at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary, two southern California evangelical schools, as they worked through the sometimes wrenching doctrinal changes.”They’re going through all the anguish,”said Earl Grant, an Azusa religion professor who worked directly with WCG leaders.”One day you’re a cult, the next day you’re an evangelical group.” Leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose doctrines on such matters as a Saturday sabbath influenced Armstrong’s theology, recently met with WCG officials to develop closer ties.

Tkach said the two groups were moving from”spiritual cousins”to”brothers.” Worldwide Church members welcome all the support, although they don’t all accept their characterization as a former cult.”I believe we’ve always been a New Testament, new covenant church,”said Rosenthal.”We’re all learning some tolerance in this process.” Rosenthal attributed the changes in part to the church taking its founder at his word.”Don’t believe me, believe the Bible,”Armstrong often said.

The changes also demonstrate the explosive power the Internet can play in religious affairs. The technology made communication easy for church members, who are widely scattered and commonly must drive an hour to the nearest church.

As members debated on line, the Internet helped supporters consolidate doctrinal changes and helped dissenters find each other, leak internal church documents and organize splinter groups.”It’s the first really big church schism fueled by the Internet, and you can rest assured it won’t be the last,”said Mark Kellner, author of”God on the Internet,”a reference book of on-line religious resources.”The dissidents … just lucked into some technology,”he said,”but it was absolutely crucial to escalating this thing so quickly.”

MJP END SMITH

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