GCI: From Eternity to Here
Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
As I close this book I’d like to address two separate audiences and then give my personal assessment as to where our church is and where it’s headed.
A Word to Those With an Unanswered Question
Repeatedly in the past few years I have been asked by many WCG members, “How could God have allowed us to wander in serious error for thirty or forty or even fifty years? Where was He all that time?
My answer is this: It’s really not God’s fault. He’s not to blame. He’s not the one culpable for our ignorance, for our lack of scholarship, for our mistakes in interpreting Scripture. All those things were our own doing. We fell into falsehood because of our brokenness, because we are people born in sin, because we tried to manage things on our own.
God has known all the time that we have been doctrinally off the track. Yet God is sovereign, and He is infinitely greater than our sin and confusion and errors. In His sovereignty and love He has been patient with us. Today I have a deeper appreciation than ever before for the apostle’s words: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
The Bible tells us that God orchestrates earthly events to fulfill His holy will, and in our case He has chosen to slowly move us from error (heterodoxy) into truth (orthodoxy). I don’t blame Him for that; I think that gives Him great glory!
From everything I can understand, what has happened within our body is unique and unprecedented. It’s not due to anything we’ve done. If anything, our involvement has often served only to mess things up. Anything good or noteworthy that has happened among us is to God’s credit. Many times we have said, “He has done this in spite of us, not because of us.”
When you stop to think about it, the question, “Why did God allow us to remain in such error?” could be asked many times over of people and situations in the Bible itself. Why did God allow Cain to kill Abel? Why did He allow Eve to take the forbidden fruit? Why did He allow Abraham to offer his wife to pagan kings, not once but twice? Why did He allow Paul and Barnabas to get into such a big fight that they split up their missionary team? Why did He allow Peter to deny the Lord Jesus three times? Why did He allow Judas to betray Christ? Why? Why? Why?
Isn’t it amazing that God always seems to come on the scene about a minute too late? Why does He do that?
I think He does this because He wants people to seek Him out of the deep desire of their hearts, not merely because they have no choice. God could have prevented Eve from eating the forbidden fruit; He could have appeared to her in front of the tree before she took her first bite and said, “My dear, didn’t I tell you not to eat from this tree? Now give me that and run along.” He could have prevented Cain from killing his brother. He could have prevented so many things that He did not. Why? Because He has given us the ability to choose freely what we will do, and sadly, much of what we choose is not good.
Now that God has led us into greater understanding of His Word and His will, what will we do? I recommend that we listen carefully to the words of Jeremiah the prophet, then act on them: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’” (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
We must continue to seek God with all of our heart. When we seek Him from the heart, He discloses Himself to us. Already we have seen Him fulfill this word to us – perhaps not in the timing we would like, but faithfully nonetheless. My recommendation is that we continue to seek His face. If the first part of our journey has proven so life giving, who can tell what lies ahead?
A Word to Our New Friends
To the greater Christian community, I would ask that you continue to pray for us as we find our way in the body of Christ. Continue to rejoice with us in what God has done, and continue to delight in God’s glory as He faithfully leads all of us together into greater conformity to the image of His dear Son.
One of the nice things that happens when parents have a new baby is the outburst of joy expressed by other members of the family. Have you ever heard women comparing labor stories? They’re not happy about the pain, but they are excited about the new birth. It’s something to celebrate. As Jesus said, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:21-22). Jesus spoke these words shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. He intended them to comfort his disciples during the agonizing moments that would soon follow.
That seems to be a frequent biblical pattern: words of a promise, followed by pain, followed by joy. “Weeping may remain for a night,” says the psalmist, “but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
In the past few years we have learned quite a bit about the reality of this pattern. Our changes have come at great cost. Church leadership continues to receive angry and even threatening letters. Family members consider us demon-possessed or worse. There are Christians who are skeptical of the miraculous transformation brought about by God. While we certainly understand from a human perspective, it is sad that there are believers unwilling to forgive the practical implications of our past teaching.
There has been weeping in the night, yet rejoicing does come in the morning! Despite the pain, despite the sleepless nights and new problems that continue to pop up, we can truly say it’s been worth it all. I can say with Paul: “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, 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” (Philippians 3:7-9).
And so my final word to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is this: Rejoice with us in the glory of God!
What Lies Ahead?
The last line from an article in George Mather’s Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult says this: “The story of what the WCG will have to offer once all of the dust has settled remains to be seen.”1 Those words were written in 1993, but the statement remains valid. Many things still remain unclear about what our church ultimately will look like. This should not be surprising; the New Testament itself shows us that major change often takes time.
The apostle Paul, after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, immediately began to preach that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20). Yet it took some time for him to be accepted into Christian fellowship. The Christians in Jerusalem were understandably skeptical of him – after all, this was the brute who had hauled them out of their homes and thrown them into prison, if he didn’t get them stoned first – and it took a bridge builder named Barnabas to bring him into the group (vv. 26-27). Not long thereafter, Paul was sent to Tarsus (v. 30).
God had great plans for Paul, but it took many years for those plans to be fully implemented. Paul spent three years in Arabia and many more in Tarsus. What he preached and whom he reached during that period, we do not know. But it must have given Paul time to clarify his thoughts. He had heard the arguments of the early Christians; he knew well the arguments of the Jews who did not believe. No doubt he used his “preparation time” to formulate his own arguments that Jesus was in fact the long-prophesied Messiah.
Yet he was not alone. Paul soon received help from his newfound Christian friends. He already knew what they were teaching, and they taught him more – yet he still had questions to think about. Why did the Messiah have to die? Why did the Jews not accept the Messiah whom God had given them? Where had the Jewish religion led them astray? If one could be right with God under Old Covenant laws, then why did God have to send His Son to die? Paul had to think through all the implications of his new faith, thoughts we would later read in his epistles.
From the beginning, God had chosen Paul to be a missionary to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15). Yet Paul was forced to wait in the wings for many years. The way Luke tells the story, Paul wasn’t even around when the first Gentiles came into the church (Acts 10). Paul doesn’t really enter the picture until after many Gentiles already had become part of the church at Antioch (Acts 11:20-26). And it was only after some time in Antioch that Paul actually began doing the work for which Christ had called him.
I see many parallels between the story of Paul and our story. We both have roots in the Old Covenant. We both have embraced the New with joy. For both of us there have been Barnabas-like people who have helped reconcile us to other Christians and who have helped teach us. And it has taken us both some time to understand our identity and our role in the Christian world. (It took many years for the church as a whole to make a full transition from a worship rooted in the Old Testament to a faith based in the New Covenant.)
Of course, we have no delusions of grandeur that we will have the impact of the apostle Paul! We do not entertain the notion that we will turn the world upside down.
Yet we do expect God to use us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps there is a niche out there that needs our particular experience. Perhaps God is preparing us for situations that do not yet exist. We do not know what lies ahead, but we remain ready to respond to God’s leading.
Why Continue to Exist?
When our foundational doctrines were changed, some people suggested the Worldwide Church of God should just close its doors and tell its members to start attending healthy, authentic Christian churches. Ironically, we heard this not from Christians in other churches, but from a few of our own members! They were angry and bitter, believing that the WCG had caused such pain in their lives by teaching erroneous doctrines. I think that a few hoped that we had “shot ourselves in the foot.” They concluded that the WCG had been built on false pretenses and therefore had no right to exist.
We acknowledge that our historic, unbiblical doctrines were in error. We further acknowledge that the WCG would never have come into existence without those erroneous doctrines. But we do not conclude from those facts that Jesus Christ rescued us as a group merely to have us disband. He has bought and paid for this church. It belongs to Him and we have told Him that He can do with it whatever pleases Him. If it is of any value to Him, He can use it as His instrument. We are happy to let Him lead us, wherever that may be. We rejoice in the fellowship we have with Him, and we believe He is already leading us into usefulness.
There’s a second reason we do not believe it is God’s will that we dissolve: Our shared experiences mean that we have things we need to learn as a group, things we will not learn if we disband. We also hope that, by God’s grace, our shared experiences give us something to teach. And who will be our students? Our primary mission field right now is our own members. Some of them have not accepted the doctrinal changes. Many who have accepted them have not yet begun to integrate them into their life and faith. This must be our primary focus for the immediate future.
As a group, we are enjoying a new interest in and appreciation for worship. We are discovering our spiritual gifts and the power of lay ministry. We are learning to function in new ways.
Our strengths as a denomination include a high respect for Scripture and a willingness to do what it says. We recognize that Jesus, our Savior and our Lord, instructs us about how to think, how to speak, and how to act. We know that Christ makes an enormous difference in the way we live. He transforms our lives in this age, even as He gives us eternal life for the ages to come. We stress prayer and Bible study as important aspects of spiritual growth. Our recent history gives us a deep longing for grace and a wariness toward legalism.
Even so, we are well aware that there is much for us to learn, even as we teach. Because of our hostility toward traditional Christianity, few of our pastors have had seminary training. Events of the past few years have forced us to study a great deal on specific issues, but we need to broaden our educational base. In response we have instituted training programs for our pastors, including our lay pastors. We are thankful for the help that many Barnabas-like Christians have eagerly given us.
Several significant concerns still face us. One concerns the chosen day of worship. Some members, upon learning that the New Covenant does not command the seventh-day Sabbath, concluded that it was a sin for us to continue meeting on Saturday. But in many cases, we will serve our members best by continuing to meet on Saturdays. The New Covenant does not require all of us to switch to Sunday. Paul might say to us, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
Many of our members have arranged to have time off on Saturdays; some work on Sundays. Others find Saturday less convenient, but are willing to meet then because other members cannot attend at other times. Some members who do not yet understand the doctrinal change would simply refuse to meet on any other day. If we hope to teach such people, we must meet on the day they will listen. For a variety of reasons, then, many of our congregations still meet on Saturdays. However, some of our congregations have begun to meet on Sunday.
Another issue: Our annual festivals have been questioned, since they were based on Old Covenant festivals and the Hebrew calendar. The New Covenant does not require these days, but neither does it require us to stop their observance. The first century Jerusalem Christians apparently continued observing these festivals for many years. For Christians today, these festivals are optional. Some of our members still wish to observe them, so some of our congregations use them as another opportunity to hear the gospel preached! They use these annual festivals as celebrations of salvation:
- The Passover has become a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in memory of Christ, our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7).
- The Festival of Unleavened Bread is a reminder that Christ has brought us out of the slavery of sin and we serve him as instruments of righteousness, sincerity, and truth (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
- Pentecost commemorates the Holy Spirit, given that we might be transformed into the image of Christ and be witnesses of what Jesus has done in our lives.
- The Festival of Trumpets is a reminder that our Savior will return, and we will all be resurrected to live with Him.
- The Day of Atonement celebrates Jesus’ death to atone for our sins.
- The Festival of Tabernacles is a reminder that the greatest blessings are yet to come in a future much more wonderful than we could possibly imagine.
For decades, we prejudiced our members against Christmas and Easter by teaching that they originated as pagan days of worship. We have explained that our line of reasoning was wrong – yet for some members, the stigma remains. No doubt this will fade in time, but right now , these holidays do not have a high profile with everyone in our fellowship. At the same, time, many members find great joy in celebrating Christmas and Easter, and we share in their joy. This year  we had Resurrection Sunday services in many of our congregations for the first time. And an increasingly larger percentage of our membership is celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Our denominational governance is yet another major change we are in the process of making. The hierarchy of church structure is being modified to feature a board vested with authority both to appoint and to remove the president/pastor general. We also plan to limit the length of the pastor general’s term to a specified number of years. Until now, the office of pastor general has been a lifetime appointment made by the previous pastor general.
Another of our immediate challenges is finances. Our membership has dropped by half, but our income has dropped much more than that. The theological foundations on which we formerly gathered money were flawed, so it is no surprise that members now give less than they used to. Many members are still confused by the doctrinal changes and are understandably reluctant to support reforms they don’t understand.
Our financial limitations have caused us to terminate the employment of some pastors, to cancel our mass-media evangelism, to greatly cut back on our teaching materials, and to reduce other expenses. Meanwhile, we are burdened with the maintenance costs on properties we no longer use. Those properties have been put up for sale, but until they sell, we face significant budgetary difficulties.
We are well aware that our income may not improve until members come to understand New Covenant Christianity, become comfortable with the doctrinal changes, and find joy in and enthusiasm about the church they attend. Congregations need to heal internally before new people can be adequately nurtured in the faith. All of this takes time.
Few of our congregations own their own buildings, but this is probably a good thing, since it means we are not saddled with mortgages for buildings larger than needed.
So where do we go from here? I believe the Lord Jesus will show us the way He has brought us this far, and He has promised to take us the rest of the way. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Our legitimacy comes from Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
As I conclude these words in early May 1997, we have just received a press release from the National Association of Evangelicals. Its first two sentences read “The Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has voted overwhelmingly to accept the Worldwide Church of God (WCG)…into membership. The application process included examination of doctrinal changes which have taken place in the once-controversial denomination.”
What has happened among us is a testament to God’s infinite grace and His sovereignty over eternity. We can take no credit. Our church has been claimed and redeemed by our merciful Savior, and He is still shaping us for His purpose. By His grace, may we be found to be useful servants in His kingdom.
1. George Mather and Larry A. Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 325.
Author: Joseph Tkach