GCI: Conspiracy Theories and Rejection

Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
Chapter 5

Just before he died in January 1986, Herbert Armstrong told his handpicked successor—my father, Joseph Tkach Sr.—that changes needed to be made in the church. Mr. Armstrong never detailed everything that he meant, but it was clear even then that the church’s stance on medicine and use of doctors was at the forefront of his mind. At that point in our history, it was commonly believed that people of real faith had no need of doctors and medicine. Yet in the years preceding his death, Mr. Armstrong himself frequently took advantage of modern medicine. This conflict led us to want to revisit the church’s official position on the issue.

Within a year of Mr. Armstrong’s death, church leadership began an intensive study of the WCG’s practice and doctrine. No one had any particular agenda in mind, nor did anyone have any specific goals in view other than to identify, if possible, what changes Mr. Armstrong might have had in mind before his death.

Beginning in 1987, a series of changes slowly began to be made in the church—unsystematic, unplanned, often in response to persistent questions by the membership. My dad worked very closely with his top advisers in studying questions that were raised and in correcting erroneous teaching. Therefore a sizable faction of the church—members and ministers who did not approve of the changes—chose to believe that his advisers (a “gang of four,” a “band of three,” “three stooges”) were making these changes without my father’s knowledge or approval.

When my dad did give a major sermon on doctrinal changes, he always read major portions of it, confirming in these people’s minds that he was a mere dupe of the “gang of four.” They circulated rumors that others were writing his articles for church publications and publishing them either without his knowledge or against his will. These folks would say things like, “Some wicked men behind the scenes are forging Mr. Tkach’s signature. He doesn’t really go along with all this stuff. He doesn’t really believe all this new teaching. We don’t know why he’s doing it. Maybe they’re blackmailing him. Who knows what’s happening? This can’t be real. Herbert Armstrong’s successor could not be saying all these things. Something’s up. We need to get rid of people like Joe Jr., J. Michael Feazell, Greg Albrecht, Bernie Schnippert, Kyriacos Stavrinides, and people like that. Then the truth will prevail.” In fact some who eventually left the WCG made us an offer. The tentative amount to buy out several of us was two million dollars.

Of course the reason my dad read his sermons had nothing to do with conspiracies. Like many of us, when speaking extemporaneously he would sometimes make errors and inadvertent use some of the nomenclature and phraseology of the past in trying to explain what we had now come to believe. Every denomination has its own jargon, and these terms just trip off the tongue. Whenever my dad would make a mistake in speaking publicly, people would exclaim, “Aha! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” So shortly after he took over leadership of the church, he started to read almost every word he spoke in public.

It didn’t seem to occur to people that if my dad didn’t like or agree with material Mike (who was his executive assistant and editorial adviser) or others prepared for him, he could have changed it or not used it at all. Those who knew my dad know that he definitely had a mind of his own. My dad hired Mike to assist him, especially in writing and theology, and he could have fired him at any time. My dad spent hours every day with Mike, working out details of letters, articles, and sermons. Every article went through an approval cycle that included a review process which requested comments and suggested edits from virtually all top ministers and advisers in Pasadena, even those who opposed the changes. My dad reviewed all the comments before approving his material for publication. Nothing was published in my dad’s name that he had not personally studied, discussed, and approved.

Nevertheless, many of our members didn’t believe that the changes they were seeing in the church were real. Just as evangelicals have a hard time believing that the Worldwide Church of God has moved into orthodoxy, many of our members had a hard time believing their church was moving away from its peculiar doctrinal distinctives.

Three Conspiracy Theories

When the church began making doctrinal reforms, some of the people closest to my dad couldn’t accept that he was behind them; the only way they could cope was to develop conspiracy theories that “explained” what was really going on. There were three main ones:

1. One former senior minister advanced the theory that Greg, Mike, and I were acting out our revenge against the church for the abusive way we were treated as we grew up. We are all graduates of our church’s high school (Imperial) and college (Ambassador).

All I can say about this is that proclaiming the gospel of grace certainly is an unusual way to get revenge. Would to God all “revenge” was so sweet!

2. David Hulme, formerly our director of church relations, developed another theory. He grew close to my dad and for a time was one of our presenters on The World Tomorrow television program. When God began to change my dad, David theorized that my dad had all these doctrinal reforms in his mind for ten or fifteen years and was just patiently waiting for the moment when he could mobilize his plan of reform.

In his resignation letter dated April 17, 1995, David outlined a number of what he called “contradictions and inconsistencies” and concluded by saying:

I have tried very hard to support you for nine years despite the almost constant reversals and contradictions. It is with profound sorrow and regret that I have to tell you that I can no longer walk alongside you because we are not agreed on what I believe to be some of the fundamentals of Christian belief and practice. I look forward to the day when we can walk together.

Effective Wednesday, April 19, 1995, 1 am resigning from my employment with the Worldwide Church of God and its affiliates, as well as from the boards of the same….

So that there will be no misunderstanding I am sending this document to twelve people known to me for their integrity and honesty. They will serve as witnesses to the content and intent of this memo.

My father responded in a letter nine days later:

Dear Dave,

It is with regret that I accept your resignation, and with sorrow that I read your false accusations and misrepresentations. It is further disappointing that you chose to share your letter of resignation with a dozen people who are, as you put it, known to you “for their integrity and honesty,” but at least one of whom (if it was not you) allowed your misleading, if not distorted, perspective to be distributed around the world.

You accused me of having had a hidden “agenda of doctrinal changes.” Dave, there has been no “agenda” set by humans. But that does not mean that as Christ opens our eyes we can’t see more. The more the Holy Spirit led us into truth, the more we could see needed to be changed. The Holy Spirit set the agenda, not me. In April of 1994, 1 had no idea that the Holy Spirit would lead me to see that we had been wrong in our understanding of the old and new covenants and the implications of that fact on our understanding of Sabbath and Holy Day observance, clean and unclean meat and triple tithing. In hindsight, I can see now that there was indeed an agenda, but it was Christ’s agenda.

You seem to feel you have discovered some astounding revelation when you point out that last year I explained the Christian’s relationship to the law one way, and then at a certain point this year began explaining it another way. I don’t deny that. I began explaining it correctly as soon as Christ opened my mind to understand it correctly. That is what I firmly believe Christ would expect me or anyone else to do, and I firmly believe it was Christ who led me, for the sake of the Church, down the road to understanding him as he is revealed in Scripture.

You have twisted and misrepresented my comment that the recent changes have “been in my mind” since the 1970s to mean that I understood, believed and embraced these things at that time and have kept that fact a secret ever since. That is not what I was conveying to you, and it surprises me that you took it that way. I was trying to point out to you that challenges about the validity of certain doctrines, challenges that were raised by leading ministers of the Church in the 1970s, caused me to realize that there were indeed doctrinal questions that had never been adequately answered. Chief among these questions was that of a clear biblical basis for determining which Old Testament laws were binding on Christians and which were not. (Surely you are aware that we have in the past, as only one example, believed it was a sin for a Christian to wear clothes made of mixed fabrics.) My response at the time, however, was to simply put the subject “on the shelf’ and give it little thought until years later, when I found myself, as Pastor General, responsible for the spiritual instruction of the Church and challenged on many of the same points. I did not embrace those ideas at the time, and I continued wholeheartedly and conscientiously to support Mr. Armstrong and to preach and teach the Church’s position in every way, believing there were indeed answers to any and every potential objection. Even though I realized there were questions that had never been adequately answered, and this nagging realization troubled me, I still believed the Church was correct and that answers must exist. For you to construe this as some underhanded plot is simply preposterous….

You are right that Mr. Armstrong wanted his successor to continue the Church’s preparation for Christ’s return. And that is precisely what Christ has been gracious enough to allow me to have a part in doing. By God’s grace, the Church is closer to Jesus Christ than it has ever been. The Church is the Body of Christ. It exists to bring glory to him, not to me or to Mr. Armstrong. I uphold Jesus Christ, first and foremost, and may it always be so.

Dave, maybe you are right about our not being agreed in the first place. Apparently, you were looking for someone to uphold Mr. Armstrong. But Mr. Armstrong’s concern was to appoint someone who would, in the final analysis, uphold Christ. By the grace and mercy of God, our Savior has seen fit to count me worthy of the privilege of upholding the name of Jesus Christ and his gospel at all costs.

In Christ’s love and service,
Joseph W. Tkach

David’s letter of resignation came in stark contrast to another memo he had written almost nine years before. On May 27, 1986, David wrote to my dad, the newly installed pastor general:

On or about Sunday, September 15, 1985, Mr. Herbert Armstrong and I had a discussion regarding my wife’s then-precarious health. I spent about one hour with him, the second half of which he devoted to a discussion of his successor. He told me that he would be discussing this with a number of leading men in Pasadena. I had the impression that I was the first in a series of discussions he would have.

He then listed a number of men and rather plainly told me of his objections to all and asked me what I thought. He then said he had concluded that you, Joseph Tkach, would be his successor and asked me how did I think that would work. I told him that I thought that he had made the best choice and that I would fully support you.

Today David is the leader of the United Church of God, the largest of the splinter groups (with about seventeen thousand members). [this is no longer the case]

3. A third conspiracy theory supposed that Mike or I had obtained some kind of scandalous information about my father that we were holding over his head to manipulate him. They thought that we—or alternately that Greg Albrecht, Bernie Schnippert, Kyriacos Stavrinides, or any of several others—would use this information to get our way whenever my dad was especially opposed to some proposed change. Like the other wild theories, this one had zero basis in fact.

Perhaps one of the more interesting facts about all three of these conspiracy theories is that the men who developed them are now leading the main splinter groups. It’s mighty tempting to build my own theory about that fact, but in view of my own experience with conspiracy theories, I think it might be best to leave it alone.

Membership and Financial Losses

The Worldwide Church of God reached its peak attendance in 1988—two years after Mr. Armstrong’s death—with 126,800 members and 150,000 in attendance. Those figures stayed relatively stable until 1992, when a slight dip was noted. By 1994 church attendance had slipped to 109,600 … and then came the Christmas Eve sermon. In the year following that milestone message, attendance plummeted to 66,400 members and is now even less. Our membership losses have resulted in a corresponding drop in income. Receipts worldwide in 1990 amounted to more than $211 million. By 1994, the year immediately preceding “The Sermon,” income stood at about $164.6 million. The following year income dropped to $103.4 million. In this past year our receipts totaled about $68.5 million. We expect a national income of $38 million in 1997.

With dramatically fewer members and greatly reduced income, expenses had to be cut as well. In 1986, our total expenses came to more than $131 million. By 1996 our total budgeted expenses fell to about $52.5 million. We were forced to lay off most of our headquarters staff, cut circulation of the magazine, sharply reduce subsidies to Ambassador University, end our acclaimed performing arts series at Ambassador Auditorium, and sell off many of our assets. In addition, we put up for sale our fifty—one-acre Pasadena world headquarters, and financial
realities dictated that we do the same with our Ambassador University campus in Big Sandy, Texas.

So you do the math. What do these figures tell you? If the changes in the Worldwide Church of God are some kind of con job—some cynical, conspiratorial plot hatched in secret back rooms then we’re not very adept at pulling it off. We should never have hired a public relations firm to “turn us into a mainstream church” (a patently false rumor circulated, no doubt, by ex-members trying to make sense of our dramatic doctrinal changes). At any time in the past several years we could have called a halt to the changes, turned back the clock, confessed that we were wrong, and tried to woo back disaffected members (along with their pocketbooks). Yet we have not done that and we will not do that.

Why not?

Because we have come to believe with all our hearts that a vital, vibrant, growing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is worth any cost we may be required to pay. “What good is it,” the Master still asks, “if a man should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” We have counted the cost, and we are not going back. Our hearts resonate with the apostle Paul who wrote, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).

Not All Costs Are Financial

In the past few years I’ve come to understand more clearly than I ever desired what Paul meant when he spoke of “the fellowship of sharing in [Christ’s] sufferings.” Some of my friends from high school and college days think I’m demon-possessed. If they don’t go that far, at least they’re convinced I was never really converted. Most of them won’t talk to me. And those who do talk to me often tell me things I’m not so sure I want to hear. One longtime friend, a man I’ve known since high school, recently left us to join one of our splinter groups. Upon his departure he told me, “Boy, it’s amazing, Joe, how many people just can’t stand you and Mike. They hate you. They’re really angry.” I wanted to say several things, but I bit my tongue.

Our offices continue to receive a steady stream of angry letters (usually anonymous) which denounce us for leaving “the truth” and embracing Protestant lies. Some are very artistic. I received one recently that included a nasty but extremely creative cartoon. It shows a picture of my dad working marionette strings attached to Mr. Armstrong, while I’m working other strings attached to my dad. The cartoon labels me “Jereboam Jr.”

Of course I’m not the only one singled out for such letters. Greg Albrecht, who heads PIain Truth Ministries, not long ago received a long, vitriolic five-page missive that blasted him for every sin in the book. The writer went on and on, wringing him out in vituperative language. At the bottom of the letter the author signed off, “May you burn in hell, Your brother in Christ.” (Who says Christian brotherhood is dead?)

One man who identified himself as a member of one of our splinter groups (the Global Church of God) visited our worship service in Pasadena in the spring of 1997. After services he approached me, tapped me on the shoulder, and announced his name and church affiliation. He then told me that if he “had the authority” he would kill me. In front of many others he declared that he would like to cut my head off.

Long before I really started feeling the heat, my dad found himself thrown in the furnace. He passed away in September 1995 from cancer, but I’m convinced his health declined much faster than it would have ordinarily. The enormous amount of stress he faced from leading the church into reform helped send him to an early grave (but into the Master’s arms!)

The personal costs don’t stop there. Members of my own extended family left our church to join ne of the splinter groups which has been somewhat hostile toward us. One of my relatives simply cannot understand what has happened within the WCG. She has been angry, hurt, and confused about the changes. She saw them as a betrayal. We have tried to talk about these issues a number of times, but we simply no longer see eye to eye. “But Joe,” she will plead, “don’t you see that the Sabbath is the right way to love God?”

“I understand that it is one acceptable means to love God,” I say, “but if you approach it as a necessary means—as a way to earn His acceptance and use it as the measure of authentic Christianity—then you’ve gotten off track.”

These are but a few of the examples in my own experience of what it means to “share in the fellowship of his sufferings.” It has not been easy. It has not been pleasant. It has not led to long nights of restful sleep or carefree days of blissful ease.

But it has been worth it! I agree wholeheartedly with another of Paul’s memorable sentences: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). No, they’re not worth the comparison at all! And in any event, suffering is only part of the story. There also has been real joy.

Reaction From Former Members

The reaction to all this from those who have left us is both interesting and sad. I have been told many times, “You guys make us sick. You’re just going to the world and to these harlot daughters to seek approval.” We have tried to explain that we’re really not running around seeking the approval of men, that the only One we actively seek to please is God. “But you know the way it works in a family,” I’ll say. “When someone in a family does something that’s good for the family, all the other family members rejoice and want to come alongside. That’s what has been happening.”

Sadly, many of our former members don’t see that … yet. We’re praying that God will continue to open eyes, that His light will shine in the hearts of many of those who have left us. We will continue to pray, believing that if our heavenly Father can work one miracle among us, He can do another. Or as many as it takes,

Because that’s the kind of God we now know Him to be.

To chapter 6

Author: Joseph Tkach


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