The remarkable transformation of the Worldwide Church of God [now named Grace Communion International] never fails to amaze us. Recognizing it as a God-ordained move, we thank the Lord for the change of heart of the denomination’s leaders and members all over the world. Here in this country, WCG remains one of PCEC’s faithful partners in the latter’s efforts to evangelize the whole Philippines. At the Council’s 23rd general assembly last year, the denomination was granted an observer status to give the constituency an opportunity to learn more about the WCG.
Early this year, Rev. Joseph Tkach, Jr., pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, was in the country for a short visit. During a chat with Ms. Carmelyn Lois A. de Guzman, managing editor of Evangelicals Today, Ms. Jean A. Padrinao, program support services head of Far East Broadcasting Company, and Mr. Efren Montano of People’s Journal, God’s grace and power became more evident even as Mr. Tkach gave a status report of WCG’s journey back to evangelical orthodoxy. Following are excerpts of the interview with the respected Christian leader.
|Mr. Tkach giving a testimony about the WCG’s transformation to evangelical leaders in Quezon City.
We have all learned about your road back to evangelical orthodoxy. Briefly, how has the journey been?
The Worldwide Church of God (WCG) has been infamous in the past for predictive prophecy and our magazine The Plain Truth was well-known for interpreting the news in terms of Bible prophecy. The Holy Spirit led us to understand that there was a problem regarding Herbert Armstrong’s theology. He was a man who loved God very much but had no disciplined training. He didn’t go to seminary or had any college education or special disciplines that would help him understand theology better. So, he made some mistakes in his theology. A few years after his death, we began to realize that and were convicted that we should change those mistakes we taught, repent of the errors and teach the truth. On the one hand, we still want to extend honor to him as the one who founded this movement. But on the other hand, we’re mature enough to realize that no leader is perfect and we can repent of the mistakes that we learned in theology. And it’s been a good and wonderful journey. Any time you give up control of what you have and surrender it to God, the journey becomes more exciting. That’s what we’ve experienced-both the thrill of coming closer to the Lord as well as entering into His joy, which means we also enter into His suffering. But certainly, the journey is well worth it.
Can you tell us some of the mistakes Herbert W. Armstrong made?
The two, probably most noteworthy or primary, mistakes that were made in the magazine were a teaching known as British Israelism and predicting when Jesus would return.
British Israelism is the idea that the northern tribes of ancient Israel lost their identity and they now represent the modern nations of western Europe and the United States. That theory has already been disproven through Scriptures. But that was a focus Mr. Armstrong had which he believed to be the key to unlock prophecy. Being of the premillennial dispensational tradition as many Evangelicals are, he also made the mistake of predicting when Jesus would return. So, those are two fundamental errors that we’ve recognized, acknowledged and repented of. We really forcefully teach against them now.
What was the reaction of your members after you realized those mistakes?
Tremendous emotions were released when we began to teach that Mr. Armstrong had unwittingly made some errors. Some people felt that this was a secret agenda we had for the last 10 to 15 years and we were just waiting for the moment to spring our plan into action and repudiate Herbert Armstrong. Those who had that kind of feeling began to organize themselves as an opposition and were strongly against any doctrinal reforms we had made.
In our peak in 1988, we had 150,000 people worldwide. After repenting of those doctrinal errors, our denomination split in half. We retained half of the denomination; the other half splintered into half a dozen different groups that formed to maintain Armstrongism. What’s interesting is, of the 80,000 (the half that didn’t remain with us), 40,000 people didn’t go anywhere. They just stayed at home, were confused, didn’t trust anyone and didn’t know what to do.
We feel sad for those people because we’d like for them to see the truth. And we’re sad because we ended up splitting families. We might have grandparents in one splinter group, their adult children in another splinter group and, perhaps, their other adult children in our church. Some of those people now don’t talk with each other. In some cases, there was a divorce because a wife remained with us while the husband joined another splinter group. Every possible variable permutation has occurred. And that has caused a lot of pain and suffering. This is what I mean by what I said earlier that although it’s been a good journey, but while we experienced the joy of the Lord we’re also attuned to His suffering.
In how many countries does the WCG have a ministry?
We’re a fairly small denomination, with 58,000 people worldwide. In some countries, we might have one large congregation. In the island of Trinidad, there’s just one congregation of 300 people, while in the United States, we have 435 congregations. Here in the Philippines, there are 60 congregations. The churches vary in size and complexity.
After a lengthy discussion, we retained the name “Worldwide Church of God” [until the year 2009] although, in some ways, it was easier to simply change our name. The new name might have helped us with the new identity. But there would be problems with that, too, because some skeptics would say, “Well, how do we know that this change is genuine? How do we know that you changed your name simply to try to hide the past?” We determined that it would be better, at this point in time, to just retain the name because it shows God’s sovereignty over eternity. God can take any group of people, no matter how infirm their theology might be, and bring them to recognize their error and teach the truth. This way, we have become a trophy for Christianity and a testimony for the power of God — He changed us as a denomination. While I’m not an expert in church history, I’ve been told by church historians and other denominational leaders that this is the only occurrence they were aware of in 2000 years of church history where a whole denomination has done this. So, I think it’s been an encouragement to the whole body of Christ.
In an interview published in Christianity Today (see “From the Fringe to the Fold” in the Sept-Oct. 1996 issue of Evangelicals Today—Ed.), you mentioned that your journey became difficult because of the non-acceptance of some evangelical groups. Has this situation improved?
It is interesting to reflect that when we acknowledged that the Trinity is a correct teaching while British Israelism is a false theory and some of the other corrections we’ve made, evangelical Christians didn’t initially celebrate that. And I can understand and appreciate why they were skeptical. For 50 years, our publications were saying that we’re the only true Christians and all the other Evangelicals are false Christians. After name calling for 50 years, we suddenly stopped. Thus, the other side was skeptical. It’s like being in a cave, throwing rocks out at everybody. Then when you come out of the cave people want to look at your hands and see if you’re still holding rocks. But I’m happy to say that there were some denominations that very quickly embraced us and extended the right hand of fellowship. There were other denominations who were more reticent. As time progressed, however, they said, “These people are genuine” and have since embraced us.
I certainly like to thank and commend the Foursquare Gospel Church for being the first denomination to come forward and embrace us. Soon after, other denominations came along, like the Missouri Synod Lutherans, Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Southern Baptists and Congregationals.
We’ve joined the National Association of Evangelicals in America. During their annual meeting last year, they asked me to give a brief testimony. Then they went into their board meeting to vote whether or not to accept us. If I recall correctly, the votes were: 83 yes and only 5 no votes. So, this is an overwhelming acceptance.
What special role does the WCG in the Philippines play?
I’d say that the Christian community is like God’s army. Regardless of the denomination or the parachurch organization or ministry, we all carry a banner for Christ. The Holy Spirit has gifted everyone in different ways. And each denomination represents some part of God’s army.
Since the WCG existed for a number of years here and have some reputation, I think, this is something God can use for His glory and to advance His kingdom here, just to say, “Here’s the Worldwide Church of God that used to teach some error. They’ve repented and they’ve embraced the rest of the Christian body as their brothers and sisters.” It points to the unity that’s in Christ as opposed to the disunity through which the secular world looks at Christianity as divided into 500 denominations and uses that as an argument against Christianity. I think this signals a move from the Holy Spirit that is the opposite of that kind of message.
Here’s a group that’s changed and is being embraced by all these other denominations. And so, it puts a focus on the family side, on the unity side of Christianity that the secular people and unchurched people don’t understand. Thus, part of our mission is to point that out that there is unity in the body of Christ and to better explain why there are so many denominations.
What can you say about the commercialism that has crept into Christianity?
I think the problem is that we all know the answer, but no one is willing to really face the reality of the answer. The way that secular society makes inroads into the Christian body is dangerous. What we see in Christianity today is a focus on “How can I get?” People ask, “How can I get into God’s kingdom?” or “How can I get heaven?” when the reality of the Gospel is not to get into heaven or to get into God’s kingdom but rather to get heaven or God’s kingdom into the person. Until all Christians sharply focus on this important distinction we will suffer from this kind of commercialism, where we’re seen as competing with one another. When we do evangelism with this kind of wrong approach, we end up bringing people to church with a commercialism mindset. They come to church saying “What can this church do for me?,” not “‘What can I do for the church?” or “What can I do to advance God’s kingdom?” It’s like a shopping-mall kind of mentality.
In what direction is the Worldwide Church of God going?
My way of describing it is: I’d like to see all the members of WCG gain FOCUS, an acronym for five things.
Fully recognize that God’s kingdom is here now. And, while it’s not yet here in its fullness, we Christians participate in God’s kingdom now. Because of our denomination’s past focus on prophecy, we didn’t even believe that the kingdom is here now. And that’s something that I think we need to fully recognize.
Our identity is in Christ. In the past, our identity had been in the old covenant, in the Ten Commandments, in the Sabbath day, and Christ was just some sort of a second element in our identity. That was a mistake. Christ should be primary in terms of our identity.
Church involvement. I’d like to see all the members understand that a healthy church is one in which all the members are involved and practicing gifts from the Holy Spirit. Although not all members are called to the pastoral ministry, all have a ministry that they should be involved in.
Understanding doctrine better. Christianity would be better if we can all focus on the primary core issues, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and be more generous of the peripheral items. So often, the reasons that denominations split is because they focus on secondary, peripheral items. So I’d like to see our membership become grounded and understand the essentials.
Spiritual formation. We have a good, longstanding tradition of practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting and regular church attendance that are essential to the Christian life. It’s a mistake to do them with the idea of earning something. But if they’re done as a response of a person’s love to God the person grows in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He becomes a stronger Christian.
originally published in the March-April 1998 Evangelicals Today, the magazine of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches