Absolute Power

The transformation of the Worldwide Church of God into a mainstream evangelical group is the most astonishing story in modern religion. WCG leaders have told their version of events in numerous books, articles and interviews. That version, however, is riddled with errors and outright lies. In a new book to be published this year, Trumpet executive editor Stephen Flurry exposes the reality of what happened to the WCG. Here is the first chapter.

Let me start with the ending: The Worldwide Church of God has not been transformed by truth over the past 20 years, as Joseph Tkach Jr. suggested in his 1997 book. The church has been transformed—no doubt about that. But not by truth. Rather, it was one of the most treacherous, deceitful and abusive transformations in the history of religion.

Consider this snapshot of the Worldwide Church of God (wcg), from 1986, at about the time its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, died: It had a worldwide church service attendance of more than 140,000. Another 100,000 were considered co-workers (non-members who regularly contributed to the church financially ). More than 700 ministers served the needs of the members and prospective members—over 400 of them employed by the church. The church’s annual income exceeded $200 million, the bulk of which paid for World Tomorrow television time, publishing costs, salaried personnel and Ambassador College operations.

In 1985, The World Tomorrow was beaming around the world on more than 400 stations. That year, the church distributed 85.7 million publications. The church’s flagship magazine, the Plain Truth, had a monthly circulation of 8.4 million. The church’s other magazines, The Good News and Youth, had circulations of 828,000 and 224,000, respectively. The church received 6.7 million pieces of mail that year. It answered 1.1 million phone calls and added 2.1 million new names to its database. Mystery of the Ages was its most popular book, requested by more than 750,000 people in just the last five months of 1985.

This is what Mr. Armstrong bequeathed to his successor.

Fast forward 20 years. Membership ranks have dwindled by 70 percent. The income has plummeted by about 90 percent. The World Tomorrow program—one of the most popular religious programs in America during the 1980s—vanished from the airwaves in 1994. Ambassador College, providing liberal arts training to some 15,000 students over the course of five decades, is now defunct: The Pasadena, California, campus closed its doors in 1990; its sister campus in Big Sandy, Texas, followed suit in 1997. The Good News was discontinued in 1990, while the Plain Truth barely survives with fewer than 100,000 subscribers. This is a colossal disaster by any business standard.

Then there is Mystery of the Ages—Mr. Armstrong’s most important book. Written in the last year of his life, it was far and away the church’s most popular piece of literature at the time of the author’s death. Tkachism took over in 1986 and the book was gone by early 1988, even though more than a million copies had been distributed—a phenomenal success by any measure.

All the unique doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God have been changed. All of Mr. Armstrong’s literature has been retired. All the operations he established have been either downsized or phased out. Most ministers and members have either fled or been excommunicated for resisting change.

And through it all, a tight-knit band of Tkach loyalists weathered the spiritual storm and the devastation left in its wake, all the while amassing a small fortune by selling off all the goods and property Mr. Armstrong once used for God’s work.

Today, in the wcg, there is no work—just truckloads of money brought in from the fire sale. They have sold off nearly everything that had any monetary value—summer campsites, fall festival sites, furniture, books—everything. They even auctioned off personal gifts that world leaders had given to Mr. Armstrong. In 2000, they sold the Big Sandy campus for $8.5 million. In 2004, they offloaded the fire sale’s biggest prize—their headquarters property in Pasadena, including the world-renowned Ambassador Auditorium. Church officials were ultra-secretive about the final sum they collected for their crown jewels, but it was probably in the neighborhood of $60 to 70 million.

Whatever the final price, it was enough to make Bernie Schnippert positively giddy. “We are in a very good position financially,” the church’s director of finance told the Pasadena Star-News in May of 2004. According to Schnippert, the church now had enough to meet the church’s financial obligations and then some.

“Administrative Nightmare”

In Transformed by Truth, Joseph Tkach Jr. is quite critical of Mr. Armstrong’s governmental structure. “It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he wrote. “Mr. Armstrong may have never wielded absolute power in our church, but by the same token, there weren’t many who would challenge him on an issue. No doubt that is one reason why he earned a reputation ‘on the outside’ as a theological despot.”

Later, he wrote that Mr. Armstrong “was most definitely and absolutely in charge of our church. … He was the founder, and he came on the scene as this transcendental figure whom most of our members saw as having all authority and power ….”

In another book, written by Tkach Jr.’s right-hand man, Michael Feazell said Mr. Armstrong “seemed oblivious to the administrative nightmare his one-man-show style of leadership created” (Liberation of the wcg).

I can’t figure out how a worldwide work that helped millions of lives—through the airwaves, with free literature, international humanitarian projects, a famous concert series, youth programs, two colleges and a high school—could ever be characterized as nightmarish, yet that is the way wcg officials today represent that history. In listening to them, you get the impression they had no choice but to remain in this church, as if Mr. Armstrong handcuffed them to the chairs at church services!

“How could the church have lied to me all these years?” Feazell asked in his book. It’s one thing to disagree with what Mr. Armstrong believed and taught—a lot of people did—but to say the church lied? “I felt taken advantage of,” Feazell continued, “spiritually and emotionally raped” (emphasis added).

Raped? Because he chose to remain in a church that he could have walked away from at any time? He’s comparing his upbringing in the wcg to a woman being forcibly raped by a sexual pervert?

Feazell wrote, “It seemed as though my life had been robbed from me. I could have gone to a state college and had a real career and maybe even been a real Christian. I was angry. I was confused. I was depressed. And I was disgusted with the seductive assault on the true gospel waged by Herbert Armstrong’s ‘one and only true church.’”

I’m disgusted too, that he would compare Mr. Armstrong’s religion to the despicable deeds of a rapist.

One Long “Process”

When Tkach, Feazell and their associates grabbed hold of the reins from a tyrannical despot who forced his subjects to submit, one wonders why the system of government Mr. Armstrong set up in the church wasn’t the first doctrine they changed.

Feazell insists that right after Mr. Armstrong died, one of Tkach Sr.’s “first goals was to dismantle the authoritarian approach to government in the church …” (ibid.). Yet, according to Feazell, Tkach Sr.’s first course of action was to tone down authoritative language in a speech club manual—not exactly earth-shaking in its magnitude.

Later in his book, Feazell admitted that when Tkach Sr. died in 1995, he “delegated the same unchecked authority to his son, Joseph Tkach Jr., making him the third pastor general of the church.” Think about that—even though one of his “first goals” as pastor general was to supposedly “dismantle” the church’s authoritarian government, Joseph Tkach Sr. died with the same “unchecked authority” he had inherited from Mr. Armstrong nearly 10 years earlier. And as Feazell noted, the father passed those same powers down to his son who, at 43 years of age, became supreme head of the Worldwide Church of God in 1995.

“The younger Tkach,” however, “immediately adopted, voluntarily, a consensual style of leadership and began to act only with approval from the church board of directors,” Feazell wrote. But did he make any permanent revisions to the powers of pastor general? According to Feazell, the younger Tkach “began the process” of revising the church bylaws in 1996. Yet, when asked in July of 2002—six years later, during a court deposition—if Tkach Jr. had the same absolute power he inherited in 1995, Feazell said, “That may well be true.” That was six years after the younger Tkach “began the process” of revising the bylaws—a full 16 years after his father set out to “dismantle” the church’s authoritarian government.

Real Truth Emerges

Why did it take these men so long to make this change? For one, Feazell wrote, the decision to finally begin the process in 1996 “was made easier by the fact that rigid doctrinal opposition in the administration no longer existed.”

What a shocking revelation.

Writing as Tkach Jr.’s right-hand man, Feazell admitted in his 2001 book that one reason Tkachism was so slow to relax the church’s rigid stance on absolute power is because of the strong oppositionwithin the church against doctrinal reform! It was only after that opposition was removed that the Tkaches could then finally consider the prospect of relinquishing their total control.

Tkach Jr. said essentially the same thing in his book. Writing in 1997, he acknowledged that the church was even then working to change the way its government operated. “We do not believe that one form of church government is more biblical than another,” Mr. Tkach wrote, “and are taking steps to decentralize our ecclesiastical structure.”

Later in the book he wrote, “There is no question that [Mr. Armstrong’s] administrative and organizational structures allowed unbiblical teaching to be believed and perpetuated” (emphasis added). So he blames Mr. Armstrong’s authority as the reason why unbiblical teachings were believed and perpetuated. Tkach then wrote, “In His mercy God has changed our doctrines first, and we are now working to change our governmental structure and polity” (emphasis added).

In other words, now that the changes had been made and the opposition removed, it was time to consider restructuring the government.

How can he condemn the hierarchical government Mr. Armstrong supposedly employed to perpetuate his beliefs and, in the very same paragraph, consider that same hierarchical form to be divinely inspired because it was used to dismantle everything Mr. Armstrong stood for? Why is Mr. Armstrong’s approach likened to rape, whereas Tkach’s is a sign of God’s love and mercy?

Because that’s what Joseph Tkach says—that’s why. Never mind Mr. Armstrong’s legacy—that he left behind a financially solvent, unified church with a committed membership devoted to supporting a worldwide work. Never mind Tkachism’s legacy of destruction—of excommunicating people by the thousands; dividing families; destroying marriages; closing colleges, youth programs and foundations; and stealing money.

Never mind all that—just believe what Tkach says.

As members in the church taken hostage by Tkachism, that was our only choice—or else we were forced out. I repeat: We were forced out! It was Tkachism, certainly not Mr. Armstrong, that forced its will on the members of the Worldwide Church of God.

Legacy of Abuse

Writing in 2002, Feazell said that Mr. Armstrong “had complete authority doctrinally and administratively. Disloyalty among ministers was dealt with by firing and expulsion from the church fellowship.” And the exact same thing can be said about the Tkaches, as Feazell later admitted in a court deposition: “Any minister of any church is required … to teach what the church’s doctrines are.” And, “[I]f someone teaches contrary to church doctrine [in the wcg], then they are subject to being disfellowshiped.” And many were. How many is an open question, but it isn’t going far out on a limb to suggest that the Tkaches were responsible for more disfellowshipments and firings than Mr. Armstrong ever was—by far. According to Feazell, since the Tkaches took over, more than half of the church’s membership and ministry has either left or been shown the door.

Leaving aside the numbers, keep in mind the big picture. Think about the way Tkachism preserved loyalty to its administration. Under Mr. Armstrong, at least members and ministers had the benefit of knowing what they were getting into. A prospective member, for instance, could have seen Mr. Armstrong on television, requested literature and then arranged for a visit with a wcg minister. If he chose to, that individual could then study for baptism and finally become a member of the church. All along, the member knows exactly what he is getting into.

The same would have been true for wcg ministers under Mr. Armstrong. Most were probably trained at Ambassador College. All of them had a thorough understanding of the church’s doctrines. If that minister, over time, decided he didn’t agree with Mr. Armstrong’s teachings and started causing division, he would be disfellowshiped. As Feazell acknowledged, any minister of any church should be required to teach his church’s doctrines. But again, at least that minister knew what he was getting into from the beginning. Mr. Armstrong was the founder—what he taught is what the church believed. If the minister once agreed with Mr. Armstrong’s teachings and subsequently changed, why stay in Mr. Armstrong’s church? How is it forcing your will on that individual to tell him, if you don’t preach the doctrines of this church, you don’t belong here?

With Tkachism, however, the element of force was clearly at play. Remember the snapshot: At the point of Mr. Armstrong’s death, there were 140,000 people in the Worldwide Church of God who, to some degree or another, agreed with Herbert W. Armstrong’s teachings. But at the very top of that church’s governmental pyramid, surrounding Tkach Sr., was a band of men who never agreed with those teachings but somehow remained in the church. And after the founder died, these men, with Tkach’s blessing, determined to change the very core beliefs of a church that had existed for over 50 years.

And since these changes were made from the top down, with unchecked authority, ministers and members alike were left with only one option: They had to abandon the fundamental truths they had proven and believed and taught for years while inside the Worldwide Church of God and accept Tkach’s new teachings—or be forced out.

In my mind, that is using authority forcefully and abusively.

Powerless—No Voice

Feazell explained in his book, “Ironically, the same authoritarian governmental structure that created the heretical environment in the first place was necessary to correct it” (emphasis added). In his thinking, they were justified in using absolute power, because otherwise, “Tkach would not have been able to implement the massive doctrinal transformation that characterized the later years of his administration without the unfettered hierarchical authority delegated to him by Armstrong” (ibid.).

Realize just how stunningly blunt this admission really is. He knows—he’s admitting—that without total power, their transformation would have never happened! The church membership simply would not have allowed it! But by God’s “mercy,” they were able to use absolute power to force it down our throats—or else show us the door.

Feazell continued, writing in a book for all to see, “[W]ithout such total authority, the changes in doctrine and direction would never have happened” (emphasis added). He’s not saying might, or perhaps, or maybe. Without absolute power, the Tkach transformation would have never happened.

That is abuse of power.

Feazell wrote about seven dynamics that accompany an organization in the midst of massive change. Under his sixth point, he wrote, “wcg members were frustrated with their sense of powerlessness. Not only did they have no voice in the decision to change their cherished doctrines, but in a church culture that valued being able to understand and explain one’s beliefs, they feared that they could not adequately understand the new doctrines” (emphasis added). The entire church membership, he says, cherished their old teachings—couldn’t understand the new—and were powerless to prevent the changes from happening.

That is abuse of power.

Feazell’s seventh point is this: “If you take the pressure off, people will revert to their old behavior. People tend to hope the crisis will just go away. If we were to stop teaching the changes right now and invite members to go back to the old doctrines, I am convinced that a certain percentage would do so.”

And these men think Mr. Armstrong used his office to forcefully pressure people into believing a certain way?

It’s Always Something

At a 2002 deposition, we asked Mr. Tkach Jr. about the much-anticipated changes he had vowed to make in church governance. “Were those changes effected by the end of 1997 or 1998?” we asked, referring to what he indicated in his book.

To which he responded, “No.”

And what had they done in the six years since Tkach released his book? “We’ve had discussions,” Tkach said. “We’ve produced a manual, and we won’t make those changes until we conclude the sale of our property.

Quite a coup: Force new doctrines into the church environment and give the members “no voice” in determining the church’s course. Do away with the church’s work—the television program, most of the literature, the colleges, the high school, the foundation and so on. Excommunicate “disloyal” ministers. Drive out “divisive” members by the tens of thousands. Remove all resistance. Then sell off all the church’s assets—including multiple millions of dollars worth of real estate in Southern California and Texas.

THEN, and only then—MAYBE—consider changing the way church government is administered.

New Financial Model

In the same Worldwide News (the in-house church newspaper) in which the wcg reported the sale of Ambassador Auditorium and the Pasadena property, the church’s controller, Ron Kelly, announced plans for a new financial model. “As a result of the successful sale of the east campus and the sale of a portion of the west campus,” Kelly wrote, “we are now beginning plans to implement our long-desired decentralized financial model” (June 2004).

Keep in mind, they had abandoned the headquarters-oriented work way back in the mid-1990s. The church’s mission, like most others, was to develop congregations of worship at the local level. Again, Tkachism had completely done away with the “worldwide work” concept. There was no work, except at the local level. Congregations had developed their own identities.

But the money—by the tens of millions—kept flowing into the Pasadena “headquarters” even as late as 2004. Think about that. By 1995, virtually everything in the church had been decentralized—all except for the authoritative government and the financial model!

In his article, Mr. Kelly mentioned that the process of decentralizing the financial model had begun in 2003, when Pasadena collected $18.6 million in revenue. From that, they returned $1.5 million back to congregations—a meager 8 percent.

But as of June 2004—with the Pasadena property pulling in an estimated $70 million for the faithful band of Tkach loyalists—now church administrators were finally prepared to decentralize the financial model so that members’ tithes and offerings could actually be put toward the work that church was doing at the local level.

Now, with his absolute, unchecked authority still intact, Joseph Tkach could divvy up the fortune acquired by selling off property paid for by the tithes and offerings of members who had supported the work done by Mr. Armstrong.

Once the spoils are dispersed, maybe then he’ll be ready to decentralize the church’s government model.

Then again, maybe not.