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.
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.