GCI: A Servant of the People
Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
It had been a long, grueling, and even frightening battle. But on October 15, 1980, the state of California dropped its much-publicized lawsuit against the Worldwide Church of God—a suit that had jeopardized every American’s Constitutional First Amendment rights to free expression of religion. Stanley R. Rader, at that time the WCG’s treasurer and general counsel, had led the legal fight against the state’s attempt to seize control of our church. He had won. Yet because some observers insinuated that he led the battle only for personal gain—that he might become the leading candidate to replace Herbert Armstrong as head of the WCG—on January 8, 1981, Rader published a large advertisement in the Los Angeles Times and in the Pasadena Star-News to announce his resignation from official church positions and to make the following statement:
I do not consider it even remotely possible that I will succeed Mr. Armstrong. I am not worthy. I am not qualified to serve Christ in that way. I do not believe it is my calling. It certainly is not my desire. And I do not believe it is God’s will…. I do not expect anyone to succeed Mr. Armstrong. The Living God has entrusted Mr. Armstrong with a Great Commission and God has never taken a man before his work was done. I do not look for or expect another pastor general.1
Herbert Armstrong himself not only strongly defended Rader against his detractors, but also agreed that there would be no pastor general to succeed the church’s founder:
And brethren, I have to say to you, no one is going to succeed me…. I think that when God lets me die, the thing He’s called me for will have been completed, preparing the way for the Second Coming of Christ carrying that Gospel of the Kingdom to the world for a witness to all nations…. If I have been someone in the power and the spirit of Elijah, remember there is no prophecy that God will have an Elisha following Elijah. There is no one in the Church that has the qualifications, the experience that could carry on the work that God has given me to do.2
Yet less than five years later, just months before his death, Mr. Armstrong reversed himself and named Joseph Tkach Sr.—my father—to follow him as the next pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God. It was not a choice that many expected. Why was he chosen?
Rallying the Widows
The explanation begins on January 3, 1979. That was the day that officers of the state of California, at the direction of Attorney General George Deukmejian, walked into our church offices, took over the operations of our church, and put it in receivership. Deukmejian had charged the WCG with several financial illegalities and had claimed authority to intervene. This was a landmark battle involving constitutional law. Many churches around the nation filed amicus briefs with the court to defend the constitutional separation of church and state. Finally, in October 1980, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill No. 1493, stripping the attorney general of all powers he had claimed over the church. Soon afterward all suits were dismissed. In the end, the hard-fought case contributed to the protection of all churches…and the WCG was completely exonerated from any wrongdoing.
In a surprising development, my dad became a key figure in opposing this illegal court action. He effectively rallied the congregations in Southern California and the WCG membership— especially its senior citizens—to take action. My dad rose from relative obscurity to meet the frightening challenge. His ultimate effectiveness brought him to the attention of Mr. Armstrong. Subsequent to the court battle, Mr. Armstrong appointed my dad to be director of ministerial services (or church administration) of the WCG. It became his job to oversee the church’s ministers worldwide. Also at that time he was ordained as an evangelist, historically viewed as the highest ministerial position in the WCG.
This explains only part of my dad’s rise to prominence in the WCG. What did he do? Where did he come from? Just who was this man who would succeed Herbert Armstrong as pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God?
My Father’s Roots
My dad was born at his parents’ Chicago home on March 16, 1927. As was common in those days, the doctor didn’t get around to filling out a birth certificate until a few months after my dad’s birth. Joseph was the youngest of five children and the only son of William and Mary Tkach, who had emigrated from Carpatho-Russia.
Along with his siblings, my dad grew up in the Russian Orthodox faith. At an early age he became an altar boy, not because he was serious about it, but because that was the thing to do. He graduated from Tilden High School in southwest Chicago and continued to live in the Windy City until he joined the U.S. Navy. He served on two ships, the USS Jupiter and the USS Austin, a destroyer escort. He fought in World War II and earned two ribbons, including a Victory ribbon for his service in the Pacific theater. After his honorable discharge he returned home and married my mother. If asked about his faith at that time, he would reply, “I’m a member of the Orthodox Church”; yet he was not an active member.
Despite this religious indifference, the family continued to attend the Russian Orthodox Church while visiting a variety of churches in search of greater truth. A growing dissatisfaction eventually blossomed into action. My grandparents often asked questions of their priest, but he never provided answers that satisfied them. Soon the family (except for my dad) began listening to Herbert W. Armstrong on the radio. My dad was not the least bit interested; on the contrary, this new interest in Herbert W. Armstrong bothered him, although he didn’t want to argue with his father about it.
One event changed all that. In those days my dad suffered from severe ulcers and was considering surgery to correct the problem. He was on a special bland diet—milk products, baby food, and absolutely nothing spicy. My mother suggested that God could heal him if he allowed himself to be anointed by a WCG minister. While he was very skeptical about the chances for success, he finally agreed to try. A minister was called to anoint my dad—who was astonished to find himself suddenly and miraculously cured of his ulcers. To test this miracle he hurried out to a restaurant where he ordered the spiciest, hottest bowl of chili he could find. In the past, a meal like that could debilitate him for a full day or two, but this time the chili caused him no problems at all. Never again did ulcers give him a moment’s trouble. From that point forward, pizza laden with jalapenos and anchovies was one of his favorite meals.
This remarkable incident convinced my dad to become active in his new faith. Yet for a while, despite his intense interest, he was not allowed to attend services. Back in the fifties prospective members couldn’t attend the WCG (then called the Radio Church of God) until they had learned a good deal of church doctrine. He became an eager learner, and by January 1961 he was ordained a deacon. From the beginning he showed a willing heart for service. In June 1963 he was ordained to the ministry and over the succeeding years built a solid reputation as “the widows’ elder.” If a widow (or widower) needed anything, my dad would generally be quick to help meet the need. He’d gladly round up volunteers to paint a house or fix a kitchen appliance or repair some plumbing. Whatever needed to be done, he was available to help.
In 1966 our family moved to Pasadena so my parents could attend Ambassador College. They took classes for three years, intending upon graduation that my dad be sent out to pastor a church. Instead, he remained in Pasadena and eventually pastored a church there.
He spent more than half his ministry in Pasadena and became known as a servant of the people, especially of the senior citizens. He was always available for prayer, visiting and anointing the sick, and ministries of service. He continued to distinguish himself as a minister with a servant’s heart. Later, as pastor general, one of his main themes to the pastors was, “We’re shepherds, not sheriffs.” He and others recognized that there was far too much authoritarianism in the ministerial ranks, and he took steps to try to curb as much of that as possible. No doubt this became a chief concern of his because such destructive authoritarianism had already touched his own family. Many of the ministers who graduated to the authoritarian leadership style found themselves more comfortable in our splinter groups.
A Rapid Ascension
At the time my father was appointed to succeed Mr. Armstrong, Dad was heading up church administration. He already was supervising our ministers, so he was a natural candidate. After six and a half years in that position, he was a known commodity and had held every possible ministerial position in our hierarchy. The others who might also have been candidates were quickly stricken from Mr. Armstrong’s list.
In the months prior to his death, Herbert Armstrong had spent time individually with each member of the advisory council of elders, telling them specifically whom he didn’t want to be chosen. One time when they had all assembled, he said, “Never is my son, Ted, ever to be in a position of authority. Not ever.”
Privately, he also told several leaders that Rod Meredith should never be in that position. Before he died, Mr. Armstrong decided that he didn’t want to let the council pick his successor. One day he got them all together and said, “I’m naming Joseph Tkach as my successor.” Nobody disagreed. He died just weeks after all the paperwork had been drawn up to properly document my dad as his successor.
It all happened so quickly. One pastor from Montgomery, Alabama, called our Pasadena headquarters early one morning to confirm the rumor he had heard about the appointment of Joseph Tkach Sr. as Mr. Armstrong’s successor. Just after 8:00 a.m., he got Mr. Armstrong’s secretary on the line. “Could you please tell me if the rumor is true?” he asked. The woman began crying and replied, “Yes, it is true. Herbert Armstrong has died!” And that wasn’t even why he was calling! The story illustrates the closeness in time between the decision which had been legally formalized and Herbert Armstrong’s death.
This also brings up a very interesting question about God’s providence. If the decision about a successor had been left to someone else, where would we be today?
A Nice Honeymoon
My dad enjoyed a “honeymoon” for a few years after Mr. Armstrong died. In his first two years, the membership and attendance statistics continued to grow. People trusted my dad, and as the church began to make changes, they wanted to believe these things were right—but the rubber band kept stretching and stretching until finally it broke.
Initially, many of the changes were administrative, especially in the area of how we spent money. While Mr. Armstrong spent freely, my dad tightened the reins a bit. For example, Mr. Armstrong was well known for traveling all around the globe, visiting dignitaries and heads of state. He would talk to them about a “strong hand from someplace” that would one day solve he problems of their nations, referring obliquely to God. Many members found Mr. Armstrong’s indirect approach frustrating.
My dad continued the tradition of traveling, but instead of visiting world leaders, he visited all our congregations worldwide. He managed to visit about 98 percent of them in the first four or five years he served as pastor general. This was a very unifying thing; he stressed the theme that we are a spiritual family. Everywhere he went he promoted that theme of unity. And at least for a while, it bore good fruit.
Not a Theologian
My dad was not known as a theologian. This concerned some members. They worried that the church could make significant theological corrections without my dad endorsing them personally. It was my dad’s style to publish an article announcing a change and then delegate to others the teaching of it. In the past, Herbert Armstrong always taught everything. Whether he originated the teaching or not, he didn’t allow anyone else to reveal anything new. He always presented himself as the source (even though he wasn’t on many things) and as the primary expert.
When my dad came along and allowed others to do most of the teaching on major doctrinal changes, some of our members who were used to doctrinal changes coming directly from the top were disconcerted. They would say, “Does he really understand these changes? After all, he’s not teaching them; somebody else is. He’s letting somebody else answer our questions.”
Often my dad was criticized for not giving a sermon about a particular change of doctrine or practice himself. Eventually he responded to these criticisms by speaking from extensive notes; he wanted to avoid stating doctrine inaccurately. But this also meant he was tied firmly to his notes. Then critics started saying that either he didn’t understand the new changes or that he didn’t agree with them. Otherwise, why would he be so anchored to his notes?
We were breaking so many paradigms. We were not only correcting some of our doctrine (which the church had a long history of doing), we were doing it in a new way
My Dad’s Last Years
Over the last three to four years of my dad’s life, he became increasingly aware that some of the foundational beliefs underlying the doctrines formerly taught by the WCG were shaky at best. He came to see that some of our world-view and perspectives on church history were not grounded in reality or truth. The idea that the gospel wasn’t preached since a.d. 53, for example, he saw as untenable. He also saw problems with British-Israelism and other esoteric doctrines.
Throughout his nine years as pastor general, his most earnest desire was to follow Christ faithfully. He began to present the truth as it unfolded for him; never was there an agenda. Frankly, neither he nor we were smart enough to create such an agenda. Once he announced the first change, however, it was as if someone had stepped on the gas pedal— someone other than us. A flood of questions started pouring in from our ministers and membership. As we answered those questions, more questions came in. There was no way to stop them. The questions spanned the spectrum of doctrine. We were unable to develop a grand scheme for answering them all; we simply had to respond to the questions, one by one, as they came in. We did a lot of research and replied with the most honest answers we could give.
Early on, there were some astute members who saw that the first two or three changes we made required that other changes would soon have to be made. They accurately predicted most of the corrections we announced in the following three or four years. Yet at the time we saw none of this. These people would make their predictions, and we would reply: “That’s silly. Why are you saying we’re going to change things that have been integral to our identity as a denomination?” We steadfastly denied we were even thinking about such changes, for the simple reason that we weren’t considering any such thing. But as time went on and we answered more questions, we ended up making some of the very changes our critics had predicted. It looked as if they had more credibility than we did; I freely admit it appeared as though we really did have some sort of hidden agenda, that we weren’t telling the whole story.
For my dad, this reform was literally a life-and-death struggle. On the one hand, he began seeing that one change after another needed to be made. On the other hand, close friends and associates tried to persuade him that these changes were wrong, that more time was needed to
study them. Some of his closest personal friends wanted him to go slowly with change or not to make any decisions at all. He was torn between presenting the truth he was discovering and keeping the loyalty and respect of his friends. His experience was much like experiences our members have had.
I’m happy that he made the right choice. He chose biblical truth rather than mere church tradition, even if some critics loudly disagreed with him and insinuated he didn’t know what was really going on.
Such voices were forced to change their theories after the Christmas Eve sermon of 1994. After that, it was impossible to claim that my dad misunderstood what he was saying or that he was merely a puppet mouthing the words of conspirators behind the scenes. It was clear the changes in our church were real and that they were here to stay. Membership and financial contributions plummeted steeply and rapidly after the sermon, but my dad refused to budge from where the Spirit of God had so graciously led him.
I have no doubt that the extreme difficulty of those days hastened his death on September 23, 1995, of complications from cancer. He was sixty-eight years old. Before he died, he named me as his successor—and I will never forget either his courage or his example. I now carry the title of president and pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, and I vividly remember and try to practice one of my dad’s most enduring lessons: I am a shepherd, not a sheriff, and I serve a God of grace, not merely a Lord of laws.
That’s a lesson I intend to pass along.
1. Stanley R. Rader, “The Attorney General Kept His Word. Now I Will Keep Mine,” The Worldwide News, March 6, 1981, special edition, 9.
2. Herbert W. Armstrong, “CONGRESS OF LEADING MINISTERS HEARS DEFINED AND REEMPHASIZED SPIRITUAL ORGANIZATION OF CHURCH,” The Worldwide News, March 6, 1981, special edition, 12.
Author: Joseph Tkach