Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
How could we get our people to take their focus off British-Israelism as a central plank of their faith and get them instead to see that Christ is the central plank in a Christian’s belief system? That was the major challenge facing us a few years ago.
To help achieve this we decided to address the topic at several regional conferences to be attended by all our pastors and lay elders. In one of my presentations I said, “We’re not going to put out this British-Israelism teaching anymore. You’re free to believe it if you so desire, but it’s an unprovable theory. If you want to hold on to it, that’s okay; you’re entitled. But consider this: The knowledge of the identity of the lost ten tribes does not forgive your sins; it has no redemptive quality. It does not improve your marriage. It does not help your parenting. It does not help you relate better to other people. In fact, it tends to do the opposite – it tends to breed racism. So in the final scheme of things, where does knowledge of these lost tribes really fit? When you compare it to knowledge of your Savior, how vital is it? Isn’t Jesus the One you need to know?”
Many people reacted to my comments by saying, “Yes, that’s right. Jesus ought to be our focus.” But a significant number of disgruntled listeners said, “Wait a minute! What’s all this Protestant doctrine you’re teaching? What’s all this love-love fluff? What’s all this Jesus stuff? I came out of that. The church I went to for fifteen years before I came here, that’s what it preached every week. It was always Jesus this, love that. You never learned anything else. It was boring!”
Wherever I went I heard: “What’s all this Jesus stuff?” I heard that question half a dozen times a day, every day, for the better part of two years.
An Infamous Sermon
And I was far from the only one to field this query. One of our pastors, Ralph Orr, gave a sermon in Seattle in which he addressed the issue of preaching the gospel versus preaching Anglo-Israelism. “I naively assumed that most of the other pastors had addressed the subject,” Ralph told me. “In fact, only one of them had. So I talked about how every dollar spent on warning about Europe attacking the U.S. is one less dollar spent on the gospel.
“I was unprepared for their reaction. People didn’t want to hear this. They wanted to hear that the coming kingdom of God, the millennium, was the gospel. ‘What’s all this Jesus stuff?’ they asked. Unquestionably, there was an element of the church that opposed hearing regularly about Jesus.”
Part of that “element” still remains. Recently a man who has been attending one of our splinter groups, the Global Church of God, visited one of our services in Pasadena. One of our senior ministers, Ron Kelly, spoke about the seven miracles that Jesus performed as described in the Gospel of John without quoting the text directly. At the end of the service our Global visitor, obviously perturbed, approached me and demanded, “Did you think that was a good sermon? Do you approve of that sermon? He didn’t read one verse!” The man ignored the fact that the whole sermon was about seven specific miracles Jesus had performed and that Ron had quoted several verses in his message. But I don’t think that’s what rankled him the most. I think what irritated him was hearing a whole sermon about Jesus. This man represents many of our former members (and perhaps a few current ones) who did not want to hear much at all about Jesus. Our new emphasis on Jesus as the centerpiece of our faith did not and does not sit well with these folks.
Who Wants to Be a Protestant?
Outside observers no doubt are curious about how our church had come to the place where it downplayed the person and ministry of Jesus. The fact is, our people had been programmed not to talk much about Jesus. While we thought it was great to wax eloquent about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David and Solomon and Elijah and Elisha and the rest of the heroes of the Old Testament – and even wonderful to delve into the life stories of lesser-known characters such as Zerubbabel and Ezra and Melchizedek – Jesus was not a frequent topic of conversation. We loved the Old Testament and spent a great deal of our time there. This Old Covenant bias permeated our entire organization. If several years ago you had listened to our radio broadcast, it’s much more likely that you would have thought you were hearing the sermons of a Jeremiah than those of a Paul. We focused on the Old Testament God and minimized the new emphases developed and highlighted in the New Testament.
Even when we did cross over into the New Testament, we tended to focus on such giants of the faith as Paul and Peter and James (we really liked James). But Jesus? We didn’t spend too much time on Him. That was something the Protestants did; we thought we’d just leave it to them. That was all the namby-pamby, sloppy stuff anyway.
When at last we did get around to talking about Jesus, we had a characteristic way of referring to Him. Almost always we would use His “full” name, Jesus Christ. To us, it was almost like saying “Mr. Christ.” To refer to Him using only the name “Jesus” would be to sound like a Protestant – a weak and detestable thing. To use the name “Jesus” by itself was to speak of the weak Jesus, the baby Jesus, the effeminate Jesus, the syrupy, sloppy, pathetic Jesus. And we wanted none of that.
In an odd way, we had an almost negative predisposition toward Jesus. It was nothing we had planned, nothing official. But since we had distanced ourselves from Protestants and since they spoke so much of Jesus, we didn’t. Who wanted to sound like a Protestant? Who wanted to talk like a member of one of the harlot daughters of Babylon?
What we believed at the time about Jesus Christ was well summarized by Mr. Armstrong:
Jesus came 1) to overcome Satan and QUALIFY to establish the KINGDOM OF GOD; 2) to call and teach His future apostles; 3) to proclaim the GOOD NEWS of the coming Kingdom of God; 4) to pay the penalty of the sins of the world by His death on the cross with His shed blood, thus reconciling those called to contact with God the Father; 5) to be resurrected from the dead after three days and three nights in the tomb, making the resurrection to IMMORTAL LIFE possible for those who are God’s; 6) to ascend to the throne of God in heaven, there, as the HIGH PRIEST of the Church and ITS LIVING HEAD, to direct the Church and intercede for it with God. And 7) having received the Kingdom from God, to COME AGAIN as the KING of
kings and LORD of lords, in supreme almighty POWER and GLORY, to set up and rule THE KINGDOM OF GOD!1
Rather than speak much about Jesus, we talked mainly about God. He was the Father, and He was in charge. And of course, since we didn’t believe in the Trinity, we were never really quite sure what to do with Jesus. Throughout most of our years as a church, we struggled with theological inconsistencies about Him. We never developed a consistent doctrine of Christ, a biblically based Christology. We did say He was divine. But we said He was divine only before and after the incarnation, as though God is not God all the time. So on the one hand we said things that denied the deity of Jesus, but on the other hand we said things that affirmed Jesus’ deity. We believed Christ had come to tell us to obey the law and to prepare for the coming kingdom, which only law keepers would inherit.
When we discussed Jesus, we would normally focus on the biblical references where Jesus talked about the coming kingdom. We insisted that this message was the main message, far and away the most important message. Sure, Jesus came to die on the cross, rise again, and make it possible for believers to live forever; but this was secondary to His main objective: to restore the kingdom of God in the future.
It is significant that in Mr. Armstrong’s list above, the idea that Jesus came “to pay the penalty of the sins of the world by His death on the cross with His shed blood, thus reconciling those called to contact with God the Father” is only number four on the list of seven. On the other hand, three items in his list focus on the coming kingdom. Notice that he both begins and ends his list with references to the kingdom, a kingdom that is to come in the future, at the time of the Second Coming. That was not accidental. In our theology, Jesus Christ was primarily a messenger, a proclaimer of the coming kingdom of God. As Herbert Armstrong put it:
Jesus Christ was sent into this world as a messenger bearing the most vital and important message ever sent from God to mankind. This was foretold by the prophet Malachi. His message was the greatest NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT ever to fall on human ears. It should have rocked this world and shaken it to its foundations. The word Gospel means good NEWS! It was news of an earthshaking future event.
Jesus’ Gospel – the message He brought to humanity from God – was the good NEWS of the Kingdom of God – the soon-coming WORLD GOVERNMENT of the almighty GOD to rule all nations and bring us PEACE at last! Also, His stupendous announcement included the fact that humans, on repentance and faith, could become actual begotten children of God, could be BORN AGAIN – born of God, entering that Kingdom when set up.2
Of course, it is true that Jesus did proclaim the coming kingdom of God, forcefully and often. The first reference is found in Matthew 4:17: “From that time on [after the temptation in the desert] Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” Just a few verses later Matthew tells us, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom…” (Matthew 4:23). In the first Gospel alone, God’s kingdom is mentioned no fewer than forty-nine times. One of the last references to the kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel shows the serious nature of preaching the kingdom, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
So there is no doubt that the kingdom of God is essential to Jesus’ teaching and message. But was the kingdom only a future reality? Was Jesus merely a messenger, a newscaster proclaiming primarily future events? If so, what did He mean when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26)? If so, why does all of the preaching in the Book of Acts center not on the kingdom but on the death and resurrection of Christ? If so, what did the apostle Paul mean when he wrote to the Corinthians: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)?
Eventually we came to see that we had all but ignored the many times when Christ preached His identity and His saving work. We did not ponder deeply enough the vast implications in Luke 4 when Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, opened the scroll of Isaiah to a well- known Messianic text, read it aloud, rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, sat down, and then said to the crowd, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:2 1). We did not linger long enough over His words to the Jews, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). We did not meditate earnestly enough on passages such as John 5:16-18:
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, “My father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
In recent years we have returned to these texts and others like them and have been forced to reevaluate the person and message of Jesus Christ. We have found that the message Jesus brought was the message that the “light has shined in the darkness” in the person and saving work of the Son of God. This is the message of the kingdom of God. Jesus rules already in the church He calls His own, and His kingdom will continue to advance until the day He returns to judge the world and bring all things under the dominion of the Father.
The Positive Side
I need to back up for a moment to make sure that no one thinks we ever knowingly minimized Christ. On this issue our church did, at the very least, focus on Christ every spring. At Passover time (historically, we used Old Covenant terminology for even New Covenant revelation – we now refer to this service as the Lord’s Supper) every year, our congregations worldwide recited the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We recalled the reason for His death. We ate the bread and drank the wine that memorialized His sacrifice on our behalf. In this way, once a year, we were reminded of what Jesus did for us. In the weeks leading up to Passover, some ministers took extra time to preach about the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice. In this way, a reminder was always kept before us of what Jesus accomplished at the cross on our behalf.
And at other times, our church and its leaders held up Jesus in many ways. Mr. Armstrong took the lead here. It was common for him to say things like this:
To God I said, “YES, SIR!” In utter sincerity, I literally GAVE MYSELF to Jesus Christ. He had bought and paid for me with His life’s blood. He OWNED me. I BELONGED TO HIM! I became a YES-MAN to Christ!3
Brethren, I am Christ’s chosen apostle, and I know Satan is a thousand times stronger than I. I have to rely on CHRIST, who is MORE POWERFUL than Satan.4
Some people are surprised to learn that Jesus was central to our faith, but He was. It’s just that His role as Model Human Teacher and judge was given far greater emphasis than His role as Redeemer, Savior, and Friend. My friend Ralph Orr recounts his experience:
I came from a mainline denomination where the pastor of the church undermined the Christian faith. I was made a member of that church without even knowing if there was a God. I could see the hypocrisy at the heart of that, of making me a member while I didn’t even know if Jesus ever lived, if he was a real person of history or whether he was just a literary creation.
Meanwhile, the Worldwide Church of God, on its radio and television broadcasts and in its written literature, did at least occasionally address the main questions about Jesus: Was he a historical figure? Did he perform miracles? Did he fulfill prophecy? As a teenager I came across this material, read it, and was intrigued. But it was the church’s radio broadcast that really hooked me. I specifically remember Garner Ted Armstrong saying that Jesus must have been raised from the dead – how else could you get twelve marine-types to make up such a story, then for decades to suffer all the difficulties the apostles did, and yet not one of them ever confess to lying. That was a convincing argument to me. In addition, some of our church’s literature dealing with Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and the book of Daniel convinced me that Jesus was the Messiah.
So there were elements in what the church taught that did bring me to Jesus. Of course, it also brought a lot of other stuff along with it. But no one should think that the church failed to bring anybody to Jesus. There were people such as myself – and I’ve met others who said that formerly they were atheists, agnostics, etc. – who came to a living faith in Christ when they heard what the church was teaching. They became convinced that there was a God, that the Bible was his Word, and that Jesus was their Savior. It’s just that they also all took on whole lot of other excess baggage.
Perhaps some of the members who have stayed with us through the recent changes have been those members for whom Jesus has been more important than some of these other things. A large percentage of our ministers said they didn’t bother with Anglo-Israelism. That raises an interesting question: what did they bother with? I think some of them bothered
with Jesus. That was the focus of many of our members. My wife, for example, never much bothered with Anglo-Israelism; she couldn’t understand it, anyway. I believe there were many in our church like her.
I believe Ralph’s conclusion is correct. Despite the tangential issues which sometimes took center stage in our church, many of our members focused on their relationship to Christ and were growing in Him long before the past few years when the official doctrinal changes began to reshape the WCG. Our mailbox provides me with evidence to support this belief. While a large number of the letters we have received over the past few years can be characterized as angry and hostile, we always have gotten a few precious letters from members encouraging us to maintain our current course. One longtime member who has been with us for more than twenty years wrote to my father in the months before he died:
Many of the doctrinal changes concerning the new covenant and a magnification of the law of love are inspiring and should create a whole new dimension in the church…. The scriptures have been in the Bible for centuries and God’s way of life is not going to pass away.
I’m having some difficulty in understanding why some think these things are new It’s been years since I believed that keeping God’s law would gain me any spiritual advantage – I never believed it would gain me salvation. I firmly believe that only Christ’s shed blood is what God sees when he looks at me – like the blood splashed on the doorposts for the Israelites when the death angel passed over.
We have twenty-four hours a day – 365 days a year – to fill with some kind of activity and keeping the commandments and the Holy Days structures those days for me. Within that framework I can build good deeds of love and caring for my family and others….
Many of us in the church have been living the law of love and sharing and caring for years.5
I pray that this dear woman’s attitude is even more widespread among us than I have dared to hope. Our elevation of Jesus to His rightful position of majesty and glory is not a new teaching, any more than have been the other doctrinal changes that led up to it. The Bible has proclaimed this message all along. All we have done is to take seriously Mr. Armstrong’s instruction to find out what the Bible teaches and then go and follow it. This isn’t always easy, but it is always right. We are grateful to God for the increasing light He has shined in our hearts and minds. When we think about where He has already led us, we are profoundly thankful – and we remember that He leads us still.
No Overnight Changes
Our change in attitude toward Jesus didn’t happen overnight. A series of changes led up to it. In 1989 we stopped circulating booklets that taught what we had come to believe was a flawed understanding of divine healing.
In 1991 came a bigger change. We began to teach that our destiny as humans is not to become divine, as we formerly insisted. We had taught our people that we were to become “very God” or even “God as God is God.” We used to teach that although we were going to be equal to God, we would never be identical to God, since He is eternal. We had a beginning, of course, so God would always stay a step ahead of us. We came to this conclusion through a collection of misunderstood biblical words and misinterpreted verses of Scripture.
Until recent years, we insisted that God was literally reproducing Himself in us. We took great pride in the fact that we were the only church to understand and preach these phrases as God intended them. We reasoned that if God has sons, he must be reproducing Himself just as a snake has a snake, a cow has a cow, and humans have humans. So if God has children, they must be Gods.
Finally we realized the Bible doesn’t say this. When we started to grasp the nature of God, we discovered that we’re not going to be Gods, but rather we have already become the adopted children of God.
A number of our members were very troubled when they heard the church was no longer teaching they would become Gods in the God family. They asked, “Then what are we going to become?” When you have been taught for years that you would become God, then you hear you’re not going to become God, what’s left? There was a tremendous amount of discomfort among our people prompted by their belief that we had taken away the very purpose for human existence.
For quite some time people asked me questions about it. I would say, “It’s true that we will not become God, but there is the resurrection and immortality. Isn’t that sufficient? We will receive glorified bodies, just like that of Jesus after His resurrection. They will never grow old or wear out. Isn’t that enough?” It was tough for many of our members to accept that; it just didn’t seem good enough. For many of those who have left us, this probably still remains the case. They continue to equate the teaching of their future Godhood with the good news; for them, anything else is a denial of the gospel.
(The Global Church of God [Living Church of God] still teaches that their members become Gods. The United Church of God equivocates. On the one hand they concur with the historic teaching of Herbert W. Armstrong. “Mr. Armstrong’s 18-point list of restored truth, while not a doctrinal statement in itself, stands confirmed in its essentials by the board.”6 0n the other hand, they downplay Mr. Armstrong’s historic emphasis by usually speaking of our eternal inheritance as becoming “children of God.”)
As we dug deeper into Scripture, we continued to make changes and corrections. In 1991 we also said it’s inaccurate to teach that someone is only conceived (and not born again) when he or she accepts the gospel. Until that time we had taught that believers were born again only at the resurrection. But that is an error. We had misunderstood Jesus’ teaching in John 3 and had somehow missed what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:23: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” Today we teach that true believers are born again the moment they believe. It’s easy to prove this by using any good lexicon; you can look it up for yourself.
Soon after this change we found it necessary to discuss how the church should use the term “apostle.” For years (but not always) Mr. Armstrong had called himself “Christ’s apostle,” and when we started announcing these changes people kept coming to us and saying, “Well, Mr. Armstrong was an apostle. How can you say that so many of the things he taught are wrong? He was an apostle equivalent to the twelve and these things were revealed to him. The things he taught are equivalent to canon in Scripture. You can’t just change them!”
We replied that while it was proper to use the term apostle as an ecclesiastical title to denote the highest rank in our church, it was wrong to make Mr. Armstrong an apostle equivalent to the original twelve. That troubled some people.
Every one of these changes heaped another straw on the camel’s back. None of us knew when it might break, but that was beside the point. One of the major themes of Mr. Armstrong’s ministry had been that we should follow the lead of the Scriptures no matter what. He would often say, “Don’t believe me, believe the Bible.” That’s exactly what we were committed to doing.
In 1993 we were led to see (and thus began to teach) that Jesus is eternally God’s Son. In the past we denied this. As Mr. Armstrong had written: “Jesus Christ did not become the Son of God until about 4 B.C. when born in human flesh from the Virgin Mary. Prior to that He had ALWAYS existed, even as had God.”7 This did not square with Scripture. How could the One who is described as “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) change so radically in something as fundamental as his relationship to the Father?
In 1993, following logically on the heels of that doctrinal change, we also started to teach the Trinity. Of course, that change was not met enthusiastically. For decades our church had taught that the Trinity was a pagan doctrine. My good friend Mike Feazell, who grew up in our fellowship, has joked that he used to think “false-pagan-Trinity-doctrine” was one word! We argued that the historic professions of faith, such as the Nicene Creed, limited God to three persons and that in fact God was comprised (or would be comprised) of a “God family” with the Father at its head, Jesus Christ immediately behind Him, and all of us following Him as glorified, born-again God beings. We had also denied the personality and personhood of the Holy Spirit:
If the Holy Spirit is not a Person – a Ghost – then what does the Bible reveal about the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the Spirit (not Ghost) that emanates out from both God and Christ everywhere in the universe. Through His Holy Spirit, God projects Himself, in Spirit, everywhere in the universe – yet both God and Christ have form and shape, even as man. The Holy Spirit is many things. It is the VERY LIFE of the immortal God, which, entering in a human, begets him with GOD-life. It is the POWER of God, by which, when Christ “spake” it was done. It is the POWER by which God stretched out the heavens – created the vast endless universe. The Holy Spirit, entering into man as God’s gift, opens the mind to UNDERSTANDING of spiritual knowledge, unknown to the human mind otherwise. It is the LOVE of God “…shed abroad in our hearts…” (Romans 5:5). It is the FAITH of Christ, which may be given to God’s begotten children through the Holy Spirit. It is the POWER of God, begotten within humans, enabling us to overcome Satan and sin.8
As we studied the Bible and honestly tried to come to grips with its teaching, we saw this was wrong. The Bible insists there is but one God but makes it equally clear that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. That means the Trinity must be true. The more we studied the Scriptures, the more we saw that we had misunderstood. The ancient creeds were right after all; the Trinity was fully biblical. We officially admitted we were Trinitarians by 1993. This proclamation was the last straw for some people. They started to leave our church in greater numbers.
1. Herbert W. Armstrong, “SEVEN PROOFS OF THE TRUE CHURCH,” The Good News, December 4, 1978, 11.
2. Herbert W. Armstrong, “THE WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD TODAY,” The Good News, December 18, 1978, 5.
3. Herbert W. Armstrong, “‘THE GREAT MAJESTIC GOD being enthroned in eyes of Church once again by Jesus Christ,” The Good News, July, 31, 1978, 1.
4. Herbert W. Armstrong, “WHAT YOU MAY NOT KNOW!” The Good News, July 31, 1978, 4.
5. Personal letter to Joseph Tkach Sr., dated March 6, 1995. Name withheld for reasons of confidentiality.
6. David Hulme, New Beginnings, June 16, 1995.
7. Herbert W. Armstrong, “SEVEN PROOFS OF THE TRUE CHURCH,” The Good News, November 20, 1978, 4.
8. Ibid., 5.
Author: Joseph Tkach