Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
Those two words fairly sum up the most common response of evangelicals when they hear that the Worldwide Church of God—the group Herbert W. Armstrong founded more than sixty years ago—has renounced its unbiblical teachings and has [and is now named Grace Communion International] embraced Christian orthodoxy. Why, just a few short years ago, these skeptics point out, the WCG energetically denounced as “daughters of the whore of Babylon” all churches except itself. How could such a hostile, exclusivistic group be so radically transformed in so few years? And why should anyone believe that it really happened? It must be con—there has to be some hidden agenda. I mean, come on! The Worldwide Church of God no longer a fringe sect but a part of the Christian mainstream?
Out of the Cave and Into the Light
I can’t say I’m surprised at such suspicious reactions. After all, for most of its history, the Worldwide Church of God has insisted that it alone had The Truth. It has also insisted that all other churches were at best in error and at worst in league with the devil, that Herbert W. Armstrong was God’s apostle and the Lord’s chosen means of restoring vital long-lost truth to the world, and that those who chose to worship on Sunday rather than on the Saturday Sabbath had abandoned true religion in favor of vile paganism.
And that wasn’t the worst of it! It was as if we in the WCG had spent decades living in a cave, hurling big rocks—boulders, if we could lift them—at anyone who passed by our fortress. People soon learned to duck when they approached our door! We threw our stones year after year, broadcast after broadcast, article after article, perfectly content (well, maybe not so content, but we’ll get to that part of the story a little later) to keep on chucking rocks at “the enemy”—that is, anyone who was not us. So naturally, when we recently emerged m our dark stronghold and said we wanted to talk, wise observers first insisted on examining our hands to see whether a missile or two might still be clutched there!
To be fair, I must say that not everyone in the WCG felt this way Nevertheless, we have fifty years of publications that contain verbal sticks and stones aimed at “Christians falsely so called” (our historical phrase for biblical evangelicals).
As president of the Worldwide Church of God, I can understand why readers might be hesitant about accepting the changes that have taken place in our church over the past few years. You might still be nursing a bruise from one of our rocks, or perhaps someone in your family or circle of friends has been a longtime member and is still prone to hefting a chunk of granite now and again. Or maybe you’re doubtful because you know that no unorthodox Christian sect in history (until now) has ever turned from its erring path to seek the way, the truth and the life as proclaimed in the Bible and as reflected in “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3, KJV).
I don’t ask that you blindly accept the published reports that tell how we have joyfully embraced historical Christian orthodoxy; all I ask is that you honestly investigate “the pIain truth” about today’s Worldwide Church of God. As you read about the unprecedented changes that have occurred among us in the past several years, I urge you to keep an open mind about the possibility that a sovereign, omnipotent God really can take an erring church and bring it into the dazzling glories of His grace-filled truth.
I make a similar plea to WCG members who may be puzzled about the recent changes, to former members who are angry about the changes, and to members of other churches who, for one reason or another, have watched with keen interest as our drama has unfolded. No matter what your personal interest in this story may be, my goal in writing is the same: to chronicle the amazing grace of God as He sovereignly works in His church to glorify Himself and bless His people.
Even if it’s hard to believe!
A Friendly Skeptic
I won’t fault any of my readers for questioning whether the changes in the WCG are real, because I recognize that even well-known Christian leaders who enthusiastically welcome our changes have sometimes wondered about their authenticity.
The Rev. D. James Kennedy is the gifted pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Thousands know him better as the author of the witnessing tool Evangelism Explosion. When the changes taking place in the WCG started making headlines in evangelical publications, Dr. Kennedy was among the first to broadcast the good news through his nationwide radio program. He told his audience, “I never thought I’d be saying this, but you folks who have left the Worldwide Church of God need to go back.” Soon after we learned of his encouraging comments, we made an appointment to see him at his Florida offices. We wanted to thank him and give him additional details firsthand.
On the day of our visit, four of us—Greg Albrecht, executive director of Plain Truth Ministries; J. Michael Feazell, church administration director; Tom Lapacka, church relations director; and I— were ushered into Dr. Kennedy’s office and asked to take a seat in front of his large desk. Dr. Kennedy sat behind his desk and asked us in his deep, resonant voice, “Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you today?”
What could he do for us today? What did he mean by that? Surely he remembered why we had come—but his reserved, cautious manner suggested otherwise. I joked a bit about our visit and then thanked him for his comments on the radio. We engaged in some small talk and then began discussing the changes that had been transforming our church. He nodded politely and replied slowly from the depths of his chair “Well, that’s great. It’s good you’re doing this.” His words said one thing, but his body language seemed to convey something quite different. It appeared that he harbored some serious skepticism about the reality of our changes. Suddenly it was almost as if the gavel came down and the bailiff called the room to order. The Evangelism Explosion man wanted to make sure just who was appearing in his court.
“Joe?” he asked me.
“Yes?” I replied.
“If I were Jesus Christ and you were standing before me today and I were to ask you why I should let you into My kingdom,” he intoned, “what would you say?”
“That Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me,” I replied. I thought a direct question called for a direct answer. His face lit up like fireworks on the Fourth of July Suddenly he was sitting bolt upright in his chair.
Quickly turning his gaze toward my associates, he asked, “And Greg? If you died today and were standing before Jesus and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into My kingdom of heaven?’ What would you say?”
“By grace and through faith, by nothing I’ve ever done,” Greg replied—an answer that got Dr. Kennedy sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning toward us.
“Well…Mike? How would you answer that question?”
By the time Mike finished and Tom was on the hot seat, Dr. Kennedy had almost leaped over his desk. His posture told the whole story. He went from sitting back in his chair—almost like a judge draped in his somber robes—to sitting on the edge of his seat, to nearly falling out of his chair. We almost wondered if he was going to hurdle his desk. By the time he had asked each of us his crucial question, he was standing up and leaning against the side of his desk, a broad smile framing the words, “All right, then!”
When he was satisfied with our answers, he picked up his phone, dialed an internal number, and said to someone on the other end, “Can we tape a radio program on this right now?” In the next few moments he made several excited calls, intending to usher us immediately into the studio. But in a few moments a staffer called to remind him that another taping session already had been scheduled—with a visitor flown in all the way from Bulgaria. In fact, the man was even then waiting patiently in the studio.
“Oh, this is terrible,” Dr. Kennedy said. “Can you come back?”
Of course we agreed to return on a more suitable day. We were eager to get the word out as far as possible, because we knew from encounters just like this one that not everyone was convinced the changes rocking the WCG were genuine. Certainly Lorri McGregor had her doubts.
That’s Wonderful…If It’s True
Lorri McGregor and her husband run a cult-watching ministry in British Columbia. Their ministry had been watchdogging us for several years paying close attention to our published materials. She had heard about our recent changes but, like many others, wasn’t so sure that any of them were authentic. One day she sent us a list of about thirty questions and inquired whether it might be possible to get together with us to hear our answers. We sent a written reply and later set up a time to meet in person. The lunch that we scheduled lasted all afternoon. Lorri had a lot of questions.
“Do you believe you’re saved by grace alone?” she asked us. When we assured her we did, she responded, “Well, if you really believe that, that’s just great.” If we really believe that? Hmmm. But no time for reading between the lines; Question 2 immediately followed.
“What do you say about heaven?” she wanted to know. She knew, of course, that in the past we had taught that the unregenerate would ultimately be annihilated and that the idea of Christians going to heaven was a false doctrine. For years we had taken great glee in skewering a cartoon caricature of heaven. How ridiculous, we’d say, that the redeemed would merely sit on clouds and play harps (as if any Christian really believed that). We confessed to Lorri that we had set up a straw man and pulled it down but that now we understood from Scripture that heaven is a spiritual reality, not some physical location. When we finished answering, Lorri replied, “That’s great! If that’s true, then we’re in agreement.”
Again the “If that’s true”? What’s going on here?
This skeptical pattern was repeated numerous times. She would follow every one of our responses with some version of “If that’s what you really believe…, If that’s what you genuinely hold…, if that’s true…, If that’s really the way you look at it…”
After a half-dozen or so of these suspicious replies and more than an hour of conversation, I was growing a little frustrated. All of us were getting the sense that she didn’t believe we were telling the truth but instead were saying only what she wanted to hear. Eventually I stopped the questioning and asked why she kept adding this maddening little rejoinder.
“Tell me, do you believe in ‘justified lying’?” she asked. “Do you believe you can legitimately lie to someone who is not an authentic believer?”
“Certainly not,” Mike replied. “We were far too self-righteous for that!
And suddenly she warmed up to us.
Lorri explained that she had to ask the question about “justified lying” because she is a former Jehovah’s Witness, and members of that group reportedly sometimes engage in the practice. (“Justified lying” assumes that nonbelievers do not deserve the truth, and therefore believers can lie to “outsiders” if it serves the purposes of the group.) Once Lorri understood how legalistic our church had been through the years, it made sense to her that justified lying would never have been accepted, let alone encouraged, among us. We had a truckload of problems, but justified lying wasn’t among them!
In many ways, Lorri’s skepticism is typical of those who continue to harbor serious doubts about the authenticity of the recent changes in the WCG. To many who knew of the church in the heyday of Herbert W Armstrong, the changes simply appear impossible. That’s not hard to understand.
The Left Foot of Exclusion
Some cult watchers, ministries, churches, and pastors can be more of a hindrance when it comes to helping individuals or aberrant groups break away from their cultic theology and practice. One of our greatest challenges has been trying to explain these doctrinal reforms to outsiders while maintaining our credibility internally, and some groups have greatly hindered our efforts by their reporting.
Rumors seemed to hatch daily as we wrestled with changing our unbiblical beliefs. When some of our members noted the first changes we made, they said, “You watch! In two years they’re going to be believing the Trinity and saying that Saturday isn’t important anymore.” Of course, none of us in leadership had any of that in mind even six years ago. So we would reply, “Sorry that you people feel this way, but we’re not even thinking about the Sabbath; we’re talking about the nature of God.” The church in those days was such a rumor-rich environment that if I checked out a certain book from the library, it soon would be rumored that our next change would mimic the teaching of that book. We ended up saying, “Sorry, these rumors are crazy.” Yet two years would go by, and we’d find ourselves looking at one of those very items our critics had predicted.
Some groups would talk to our ex-members, including those who didn’t like the changes and therefore had an axe to grind. They would believe and report something that either would be a year ahead of what we were saying—thus damaging our internal credibility—or they would report that we hadn’t made a certain change yet, when in fact we had—thus damaging our external credibility. Our credibility was eroded both with our own constituency and with our new evangelical friends.
One of these stories concerned a former WCG pastor. A group reported that this man left us because we were still a cult. What the report neglected to say was that the man departed while claiming to be one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11. It also did not include the fact that WCG headquarters had discovered that this man had been scamming his congregation for about four years, declaring falsely that his wife had terrible cancer. Yet the report appeared to take his side against ours, while we were trying to make major reforms in our church.
You’re On Probation, “Brother”
It’s been a challenge for us to be accepted by certain evangelical or fundamentalist groups. While we have been grateful to find that most of the Christian world rejoices in what God has done here, we also have met those who have declared openly their doubts about the authenticity of our changes. We feel much like (I suppose) Chuck Colson felt shortly after he was converted. Subsequent to being released from prison for his involvement in Watergate, Colson was watched intently by many people who couldn’t believe his conversion was real. Some did not accept it for more than ten years.
A few people have told us, in essence, “Well, we’re glad to hear about your supposed changes. But know this: You’ll be on probation. We’ll watch to see if you revert to, what you were before.”
That’s certainly their prerogative, but our question is this: In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? Will they refuse to give us the right hand of fellowship until a decade or two has passed?
We understand their reluctance to accept us. We know our own history, and we know what we have historically said about believers we termed “falsely so-called Christians.”
Reactions like these have made our journey a little harder. A few of our more fundamentalist brethren have been downright harsh. Ironically (because of our own heritage), it seems that the more legalistic and uptight certain groups and people seem to be, the more hesitant and guarded they are toward us.
We have wrestled with the mistrust we have met, but it has been a necessary part of our journey We are changing at the very core of our church, and we know that changes this radical challenge the image the evangelical world has of us. We will continue our pilgrimage, and we will earn their trust.