CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Cults and Amazing Grace

Mar 4, 2009

I don’t know about other newspapers, but in the Melbourne Herald Sun there have been some quarter-page ads placed lately with the banner headline, “He was right!” So who is he and what was he right about?

The ‘he’ in question is one Herbert W. Armstrong. And it seems that he was right in his predictions about the current global financial crisis. The ad informs us that his ‘prophesies’ uttered decades ago are now coming to pass. The ad urges interested readers to subscribe to the Trumpet magazine to learn about more prophecies soon to be fulfilled, including “nuclear WWIII”.

So what is going on here? In one sense, nothing much: just another cult making wild claims and seeking to suck people into its orb. But there is another important part to this story – but more on that in a moment.

If you happen to be getting a bit old like I am, or if you lived in the US especially, then the name Herbert W. Armstrong should sound familiar. He was the founder of the cult, The Worldwide Church of God (WCG). And his magazine, The Plain Truth, was also fairly widely known, along with his radio and television programs, The World Tomorrow.

Here is a quick background to the group. Armstrong, a former advertising and marketing man, began the WCG in the mid-1930s. His beliefs were syncretistic, but typical of so many recent Christian cults that arose at this time, or a bit sooner. All the basic doctrines of historic, biblical Christianity were denied or distorted.

He denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and claimed that there were a family of Gods. There was God the father, and also God the son (although Jesus only became God after his death). And his followers can enter into the family of God as well. Thus there can be numerous Gods, and his followers can become divine.

His view of salvation was equally cultic; he believed that total obedience to the Old Testament laws was required, including the dietary regulations for Israel, and so on. Seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath keeping was vitally important as well. There could be no salvation without these works of obedience to laws and regulations.

Especially bizarre was his teaching on British-Israelism, or Anglo-Israelism. Although not original to him, this doctrine taught that white Anglo-Saxons today are direct descendents of the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel (the Jews are descendents of the 2 tribes of Judah). Thus America and England, for example, are the special places where God is at work. Thus Anglo-Saxons are the new chosen people of God, just as Israel once was.

Another common feature of the cults is the belief that one’s own particular church or sect is the one true church of God, and that all other groups are apostates and Satanic counterfeits. Thus WCG members were to have absolutely no dealings with any other group calling themselves Christian.

Herbert W. Armstrong, like many cultists, claimed that he was the final true voice of Christ – he was the one true prophet of the one true church.. He claimed that the true teachings of Jesus were abandoned in A.D. 53, and the true gospel therefore was not preached for all those centuries, until God raised up Herbert W. Armstrong to once again proclaim the truth.

(Whenever you hear someone claim that God has raised him up ‘in these last days’ to proclaim the truth that has been lost or distorted for centuries – be it Muhammad, or Joseph Smith, or Charles Taze Russell, or Mary Baker Eddy, etc. – we need to stand up and take notice. Alarm bells should go off when people make such grandiose claims about themselves, fully in opposition to the claims of Christ and the New Testament.)

Also like other cult leaders, he made various prophecies about end time events, which invariably proved to be false prophecies. For example, he predicted that in 1972 his particular church (the only true church), would be raptured and removed to Petra. It of course failed to happen, as did his many other date-setting prophecies.

Thus this was a typical cult, which had a lot of influence. Although church membership was never all that large (peaking at around 150,000 members in the 1980’s) his radio, TV and magazine ministries were quite popular and widespread. At its height, the circulation of his magazine The Plain Truth topped 8 million copies. The World Tomorrow was heard by millions in America and overseas.

A large, modern college campus was opened in Pasadena, California in 1947, with others to follow. His popular, handsome and charismatic son Garner Ted Armstrong looked to continue the mission of the church. However, he fell from grace for various reasons (sexual sin and liberalising theology) and was disfellowshiped in 1978. He went on to open his own church, The Church of God International.

Toward the end of his life Herbert W. Armstrong had new “revelations” that allowed him to make some minor doctrinal and behaviour changes. For example, women were now allowed to use makeup, and restrictions on certain types of clothing were relaxed somewhat.

One important change involved the use of doctors and medicine. Armstrong had taught that true believers should rely only on faith, not medicine. Believers should depend only on divine healing. To use doctors and medicine was deemed idolatrous and a sign of lack of faith. But toward the end of his life – as he experienced more and more health problems – he changed his views, conveniently. He now said one could visit a doctor and not be living in sin and unbelief.

Amazing Grace

But something happened around 15 years ago that occurs very rarely, if ever. A group that was clearly cultic shed its heresy and embraced orthodoxy. This remarkable transformation has resulted in the group now being a fully orthodox and evangelical Christian church.

The story has been written up in several books and numerous articles. One book is Transformed by Truth by Joseph Tkach. He is a significant player here, because his father, Joseph Tkach Snr was Armstrong’s hand-picked successor.

Armstrong died in 1986. As mentioned, minor changes had already been taking place. But the church under Tkach’s leadership began to look more closely at other doctrinal matters, and ask hard questions in the light of the Bible.

While it did not occur overnight, a slow but certain realisation emerged that not everything taught by Armstrong was kosher. A landmark sermon preached by Tkach late in 1994 showed decisively that a real, profound and permanent change had taken place. Numerous heretical and mistaken doctrines were jettisoned by the WCG, and its members moved into alignment with evangelical orthodoxy.

Of course such momentous changes are always costly. Many people within the church strongly resisted the changes, accusing the reformers of apostasy and betrayal. Many splits occurred, with many groups claiming to be the true heirs of Armstrong. Many members fell away from faith altogether, and many other members joined more traditional churches.

Thus at the time of writing of this book (1997), the church itself had shrunk greatly in number and ministry. Publications were stopped, colleges closed, and many media efforts were curtailed. But the change was a genuine one, so much so that by May 1997 the WCG was admitted into the membership of the National Association of Evangelicals.

This is an incredible story. Very rarely in church history do we find examples of churches or groups clearly into heresy and deception moving out of that into the truth of the biblical gospel. Satanic deception is real, as is the ability of self-deception. It takes humility, boldness and an overriding love of truth and dependence on Scripture to both stay free from theological error, and/or to break free from it.

Some cults of course either self-destruct or are violently ended (as in the Jonestown and Branch Davidian cults). Others continue in their deception. Thus many splinter groups from the original WCG continue today. That is why the ads in the Herald Sun have been appearing lately. Obviously this is a splinter group which comprises those who still consider themselves to be true believers in Herbert W. Armstrong and his theology.

But the good news is, God is able to help those who are really seeking after the truth to be set free from deception and false teaching. God rewards the diligent seeker, and the transformation of the WCG is one wonderful example of this. The enemy is clever and powerful, but God is greater, and truth always prevails in the end.

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8 Responses to Cults and Amazing Grace

  • Bill,

    Your article “Cults and Amazing Grace” was it about Herbert W. Armstrong or Celto-Anglo-Israelism? You seemed to have gotten the two confused.

    When anyone wants to discredit Anglo-Israelism they must turn to someone like Armstrong to make their point. Just choose the wackiest nut-case out there, anyone will do.

    The fact is, the belief that Anglo-Israelism is true is, in and of itself, is not a heresy—error, perhaps, but not a heresy. The approach you used in your article is so worn out, so over done over the years it becomes a little boring.

    J. Llewellyn Thomas wrote four books on the subject of Anglo-Israelism and I’d challenge you to read all four of them and show me a single statement that you’d consider heretical.

    The argument you used in your artical, which I’ve seen used scores of times over the past 40 years, reads like this:

    It’s an historical fact that Adolf Hitler was a vegiterian who didn’t smoke or drink. Therefore all non-smoking, non-drinking vegiterians are Neo-Nazis. Sound ridiculous doesn’t it? Well, that’s the logic you’re using in your article.

    Anglo-Israelism was around centuries before Armstrong came on the scene so why not leave him out of it. If you want to talk about Armstrong talk about Armstrong.

    It would be refreshing to see someone approach this issue with a non-bias point of view for a change.

    Jeff

  • Thanks Jeff

    You err in two ways:
    -you fail to provide a full name as per my rules;
    -you are pushing a dead horse.

    The article was about Armstrong and his theology. British-Israelism was of course a major part of his theology, so it had to be discussed. To leave this out would be like discussing Dawkins but leaving out his atheism.

    As to British-Israelism, I did mention that it was not original to Armstrong. But it is not really worth discussing, as it is a historically and theologically bankrupt theory, which no reputable scholar takes seriously.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    I went and had a look at the Worldwide Church of God and it is an amazing story of a cult and it’s followers (50% of them at least) becoming an ‘orthodox’ denomination.

    They do not deny or hide their past either, it’s all there on their website http://www.wcg.org.

    The only ‘strange’ thing I observed was that some of their congregations meet on Saturday instead of Sunday, but they no longer believe that churches must meet on the Sabath. For these congregations, it would appear to be a matter of tradition and circumstances, after all, there is no command to meet on Sunday, it’s a tradition.

    The WCG has looked deeply into what they believe, because of this, I think they may know and understand what they, as Christians, believe to a greater depth than most of us.

    Tim Pearce, WA

  • Hi Bill,

    I grew up in the WCG and some of the teachings you mentioned were news to me. While I did not subscribe to all their beliefs the church did give me a good depth of understanding of the old testament which I find is lacking in most ‘mainstream’ denominations today (which I now attend). And as Tim mentioned above, my faith is stronger now that I have had to figure out what I really believe – and not just believe every church tradition like most people in churches today.

    Karmel Everett

  • It seems that many of us have a warped view of what actually happens from the pulpit of a cult. The impression is, that the preacher stands up the front and brainwashes people every week with heresy. However, as Karmel Everett commented, she grew up in this particular church and had not heard many of the teachings Bill mentioned.

    My fear is that things are much worse than a preacher teaching heresy every week; and that is, that people (of both cults and mainstream orthodox churches), don’t actually have a clue what they believe! Ignorance is just as bad as false teaching. Either way if you don’t know the truth, you have been deceived. The doctrine of salvation is not an easy thing to grasp, and most people would struggle to figure it all out on their own.

    A minister may preach on sowing and reaping one week, honouring your parents the next, the importance of fasting after that, and so on; but how often do we hear preaching on the personhood of Christ, the importance of the resurrection, and the atonement of sins? Every church needs to have teaching on fundamental theologies as part of a regular service.

    Jackie Stuart, Australia

  • Re: Jackie Stuart.

    “but how often do we hear preaching on the personhood of Christ, the importance of the resurrection, and the atonement of sins?”

    My church teaches on this stuff pretty much every weeek. perhaps if your church is not teaching on these things you can either bring it up with your pastors, or perhaps find a church which deals with these topics. Come and visit my church if you’re in the Melbourne area.

    Anatolyi Psarev

  • Hi Jackie, I get your point. I don’t think that there’s too much difference between the ‘obvious’ heresy of cult and the ‘doctrine of demons’ that the Apostle Paul talks about when her refers to the bastardization of law/grace preaching that I have heard from pulpits. It’s all the same thing in varying degrees. I thought it was pretty simple – teach Jesus Christ the Messiah, and Him risen. Can’t go too far wrong if you stick with that – seems westerners like their churches to be providing self-help programmes though, 10 ways how to be a better Christian – funny, I thought it was ‘die to ourselves and let Christ live in us’?

    And that is why we do need to know what we believe, as we are all personally responsible for our own salvation. That’s where organisations such as Summit Ministries, a Christian educational institution teaching a Biblical worldview come to the fore. These courses should be a core part of discipleship training in Australia.

    As a boy my family became ‘Christian’ because of Herbert Armstrong & the WCG. Our family and couple of others were excommunicated when we questioned some of the beliefs. We learned about salvation, the Holy Spirit, tongues, healing etc. all by ourselves as we experienced the love of God and His palpable presence first hand in our lounge rooms. No preacher, no leader, just people reading the Bible and asking God to reveal Himself to us. It was a really freaky experience for people who grew up as ‘law’-abiding Sabbath-keeping, OT holy day practitioners who didn’t eat pig, crab etc. (I remember it being a real challenge to eat bacon for the first time).

    As a result, all of my family became Bible-believing and practicing Christians. God can reach us even through broken ministries, false teaching and ‘mainstream apostacy’. Truly, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

    It was great to hear about the WCG turning to God – there were many very good and honest seekers in that church, which is probably why it ended up turning.

    Garth Penglase

  • By the way Jackie, I do agree with you 100%

    “Every church needs to have teaching on fundamental theologies as part of a regular service.”

    right on. But I think that it is up to us, perhaps even our resposibility to bring up issues like this in our churches and urge the leaders to perhaps shift thier focus from time to time. As you say the preacher may preach on a variety of subjects, but if they neglect to teach on the personhood of christ, the sacrifice he made, the atonement of sins, and his resurrection for example, then we should let them know about it, and humbly and respectfully request that they do not leave out these vital and fundamental theologies from future services.

    Anatolyi Psarev

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