“The admonishment is now for those of us still living who now have a task that is set before them, a course that has already been charted by God’s apostle. We need to maintain that course and not deviate from it one iota.” —Joseph W. Tkach, the day Mr. Armstrong died
In his 1997 book, Joseph Tkach Jr. wrote, “Early on, there were some astute members who saw that the first two or three changes we made required that other changes would soon have to be made. They accurately predicted most of the corrections we announced in the following three or four years. Yet at the time we saw none of this.” According to Tkach, when their critics predicted further changes, “We steadfastly denied we were even thinking about such changes ….” He said further that none of the wcg leaders even had any of this in mind—meaning the church’s transformation—as late as 1991. It was all just an innocent coming-of-age story, we’re supposed to believe.
The problem with that theory is that what happened in the Worldwide Church of God after Mr. Armstrong died is what almost happened to the church in the 1970s, before he died. In fact, it was Mr. Armstrong’s declining health back then which had Garner Ted and others chomping at the bit to transform the church. The imminent likelihood of Mr. Armstrong’s death helped expose the true colors of Garner Ted and his fellows. Indeed, had not Mr. Armstrong recovered from heart failure in 1977, the church’s transformation would have occurred a decade earlier than it did.
Tkach Jr. acts as if they had no clue, even as late as 1991, about what they were doing or where the church was headed.
Yet, what Donald Ward did to Ambassador College between 1989 and 1994 is exactly what he almost did in 1978 under Garner Ted. Exactly!
And we’re supposed to believe that Bernie Schnippert’s work on the Systematic Theology Project in 1977—a scholarly attempt to liberalize the doctrines of the church—had no influence on his work 10 years later, when he returned to Pasadena to take charge of the editorial, publishing, television and mail processing departments?
The principal players in the Tkach transformation left their fingerprints all over the crime scene during the 1970s! But unlike Garner Ted and a few others, they never got caught. They fled the scene once Mr. Armstrong showed up physically revitalized and determined to prosecute the guilty. Joe Jr. got laid off, went through a divorce and hibernated in Arizona. Feazell—also laid off—went to Arizona to teach fifth graders. Schnippert settled into a small congregation in Las Vegas. Dr. Ward moved to East Texas.
Then, after Mr. Armstrong’s failing health finally got the best of him, they returned from hiding and immediately went to work on accomplishing what they and others almost did in the 1970s.
That’s not to say that all of Tkach’s fellows were staunch supporters of Garner Ted’s coup attempt. Some of the personalities changed. But in looking at the events from the mid-to-late 1980s, we find many of the same fingerprints that were left on the 1970s mess.
The most significant and obvious difference, of course, is that after January 16, 1986, Mr. Armstrong wasn’t around to restrain the rebels.
Identity of Babylon
The early to mid-1980s might well be considered the golden years for the Worldwide Church of God. At the same time, however, Mr. Armstrong’s overall health was in decline. His eyesight got so bad that, without the assistance of Aaron Dean, he would not have been able to complete Mystery of the Ages. Yet even with Dean serving as his eyes and ears those last few years, Mr. Armstrong did not see everything that was going on behind his back.
On December 17, 1983, Mr. Armstrong gave a sermon in Pasadena titled “Mission of the Philadelphia Era.” He read from a three-volume, extra-large-print version of the Bible—and even then, he needed a magnifying glass. During the sermon, he listed a number of truths God had restored to the Worldwide Church of God over the course of his ministry. Toward the end of his message, Mr. Armstrong discussed religious deception and the identity of modern Babylon and its daughter churches (Revelation 17:5). He said, “Well, brethren, all those things have been restored ….”
The following year, on March 10, Mr. Armstrong reiterated many of these restored truths in a sermon he gave in Chicago. He also discussed the list at a ministerial conference over the summer. Then, in Mystery of the Ages, he wrote in 1985, “At least 18 basic and essential truths have been restored to the true Church.”
But Mr. Armstrong never produced a written list himself. That task was left to the church’s editorial department. Richard Rice, who managed the church’s mail processing center, was the first one to compile a written list of the truths. It appeared in the Pastor General’s Report a few months after Mr. Armstrong died. Although the list wasn’t numbered, it included 18 points. The list church members are much more familiar with appeared five months later in the Worldwide News, with a short introduction by Mr. Tkach. According to Tkach, Editorial Services had prepared the list—and for the first time, it was numbered—there were 18 points of restored truth.
But there is nothing in Rice’s list or the one introduced by Tkach that says anything about the modern identity of Babylon. That’s because editors had been hard at work, even before Mr. Armstrong died, revising and omitting much of the church’s teaching about ancient Babylon and the development of the modern Babylonian religious system.
The biggest revision in church literature appeared as early as 1982 in The Bible Story. Basil Wolverton, a nationally known artist and wcg minister, began work on the project in 1958. Originally appearing in the Plain Truth in monthly installments, The Bible Story was converted into a six-volume set of books during the 1960s. Mr. Armstrong assigned the project to Mr. Wolverton because of the tremendous need to properly teach children the truths of the Bible. “Bible stories up to now,” Mr. Armstrong explained, seemed to have “no mission but that of providing exciting entertainment. Biblical incidents are taken out of context, their real connection with the very purpose of life ignored.” Furthermore, he wrote, “In my research into the history of education, the truth emerged of the diabolical master conspiracy for deceiving the whole world.” Thus, Mr. Wolverton set out to tell the story of the Bible factually and chronologically, and in a way that would be interesting and understandable for children. Yet the series was not intended for children alone: It provided a basic understanding of the thread of the Bible for all interested readers, including many thousands of adults.
Chapter 5 of the 1960s version contains quite a lot of history regarding the establishment of civilization after the Noachian Flood. It discusses how Noah preached God’s truth and prophesied about a coming Messiah. “But something happened back then to cause men to believe that the son of a god had come to Earth shortly after the flood,” Wolverton wrote. It went on to explain how Nimrod and his wife, Semiramis, established a Babylonian religious system as a great counterfeit to God’s true religion. “There, in ancient Babylon,” wrote Wolverton, “were born the false beliefs that have wormed their way into almost every religion. Even today millions and millions of people who may want to live according to the right ways are not aware that their manner of worship follows very closely that of ancient idol worship and pagan rites begun at Babel.”
Virtually all of this critical history—Nimrod’s plans to rule the Earth; his wife’s successful attempt to make a false god out of her slain husband—was removed from the 1982 version of The Bible Story. It was edited out four years after Mr. Wolverton died—and a full four years before Mr. Armstrong died. There, in a 1982 publication, is evidence of Tkachism—conveniently enough, at about the time Mr. Armstrong’s eyesight went bad.
After Mr. Armstrong died, the editorial staff saw fit to remove any reference identifying modern Babylon as a truth restored to the church. They did this despite Mr. Armstrong’s repeated references to this point the last two years of his life.
The wcg’s new explanation about the history of Babylon and its prophetic significance immediately surfaced in other church literature once Mr. Armstrong died. In The Plain Truth About Christmas, for example, Mr. Armstrong had written, “Nimrod, grandson of Ham, son of Noah, was the real founder of the Babylonish system that has gripped the world ever since—the system of organized competition—of man-ruled governments and empires, based upon the competitive and profit-making economic system. Nimrod built the tower of Babel, the original Babylon, ancient Nineveh, and many other cities. He organized this world’s first kingdom.”
That entire paragraph got chopped out of the “updated” 1987 version, which is a major change when you consider what the church had long taught about the system Nimrod established
All well before, if Tkach Jr. is to be believed, “we were even thinking about such changes.”
Less than four months after Mr. Armstrong died, Church Administration informed its ministers that several books would need to be “updated.” Page 93 of Mr. Armstrong’s United States and Britain in Prophecy said, “Israel had been removed from Palestine more than 130 years and had long since migrated, with the Assyrians, north (and west) of Assyria’s original location.” In the 1986 version, editors rewrote it to say that Israel migrated north of Assyria, as opposed to with. The significance of this change is made obvious by the other edits in Mr. Armstrong’s work. On page 147, Mr. Armstrong wrote, “Ezekiel was among the Jewish captives after their captivity, which occurred more than a hundred years after Israel’s captivity. By that time the Assyrians had long since left their land on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and migrated northwest, finally settling in the land today called Germany.”
In the 1986 version, all references to “Assyria” and “Germany” were removed from this passage. There is no mention of the Assyrians migrating to a land called Germany today. Then they completely removed this paragraph in the 1986 version: “The Assyrians—before 604 b.c.—left their land north of Babylon and migrated northwest—through the lands that are now Georgia, the Ukraine, Poland, and into the land that is called Germany today. Today the descendants of those Assyrians are known to us as the German people.”
Again, these edits were made within months of Mr. Armstrong’s death—perhaps set in motion even before he died. Reading the 1986 version of The United States and Britain in Prophecy for the first time, a new reader would have had no idea that Germany today descended from Assyria anciently—a teaching that essentially identifies Germany in Bible prophecy. For those even vaguely familiar with Mr. Armstrong’s prophetic teachings, this represented a monumental change in the church’s teachings.
Of course, Tkach Jr. had no idea that a change this significant would have a profound impact on the church’s prophetic teaching—or so he would have us believe.
Big Sandy Campus
In the same December 1985 letter in which Mr. Armstrong informed the church about his rapidly declining health, he also made an important decision regarding Ambassador College: “… I feel God has led me in deciding that it is necessary that we close the operations at Big Sandy, Texas, after the end of this present school year. The certification of the college requiring the pursuing of accreditation, the financial needs of the first commission of the church, and the needs of the ministry made this decision necessary. The trained ministry at the campus in Big Sandy are sorely needed elsewhere because of the thousands of prospective member visit requests. I have ordered implementation of this decision to the appropriate officials involved.”
Two months after Mr. Armstrong died, the newly appointed pastor general of the church, Joseph W. Tkach, paid a visit to the Big Sandy campus. During his trip, Mr. Tkach met with the college’s deputy chancellor, Leslie McCullough, and its faculty members. According to the March 24, 1986, Worldwide News, “The pastor general updated the ministry and faculty on events taking place in God’s work, including the status of the Big Sandy campus.” Of course, the “status” of the campus was pretty clear in the weeks prior to Mr. Armstrong’s death: It would be closed.
Five weeks after his Big Sandy visit, incredibly, Mr. Tkach announced plans to keep the Big Sandy campus open: “I have instructed Mr. Les McCullough and Dr. Don Ward to apply for state certification so that we may operate the college in Big Sandy, Texas, at least one more year. Last December, Mr. Herbert Armstrong wrote to the brethren that ‘the certification of the college requiring the pursuing of accreditation, the financial needs of the first commission of the church, and the needs of the ministry’ made necessary the decision to close the operations of Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas. Since that time I have found that we can be certified for another two-year period without having to pursue accreditation.
“This will allow the current freshman class to graduate in Big Sandy, and give us time to see what direction God will lead us regarding the future of the campus there. The state’s decision on certification will not be final until July, but as of now we plan to operate next year. Of course, if certification is denied, we will go ahead with plans to allow qualified Big Sandy students to finish in Pasadena over the next two years.”
According to Dr. Ward, who heard the April 15 announcement via telephone hook-up in Big Sandy, Mr. Tkach’s announcement was greeted by “thunderous applause that went on for a great while.” Mr. Tkach asked the combined groups of faculty and students to pray that God’s will be “revealed to me.” He said that he was committed to “do whatever is best for God’s work.”
Not four months earlier, one of the main reasons Mr. Armstrong gave for closing the campus was to do what was best for the work—its “financial needs” and the fact that Big Sandy’s ministry was needed elsewhere. What a monumental shift in priorities for Mr. Tkach—and just three months after Mr. Armstrong died!
Dr. Ward, of course, never dreamed that such a stunning reversal might eventually result in shifting the entire focus of the college onto Big Sandy and in the pursuit of accreditation.
Or did he?
Different Emphasis for Commission
The scripture Mr. Armstrong almost always used to describe the church’s commission is Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
In his first sermon as pastor general, given just two days after Mr. Armstrong died, Mr. Tkach said, “In the Synoptic Gospels, our commission is clearly stated—which just means a general view of our responsibilities. Turn to Matthew 28. Here we’re told, in verse 19, to ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ Our commission here is directly from Christ. We are an extension of the early New Testament Church, who never did complete the commission.”
This scriptural citation represented a disturbing shift in focus. Mr. Armstrong may have occasionally associated Matthew 28:19-20 with the church’s commission, but it was not the primary passage he referred to. He repeatedly emphasized that the church had been commissioned to preach the gospel message to this world as a witness. With that as its focus, as Mr. Armstrong would then explain, God would provide members and co-workers who responded to the warning message. Certainly, the church then had an obligation to teach and train those who responded to God’s call, but this was secondary to the church’s main mission—preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God as a witness. Mr. Armstrong explained: “The two spiritual areas, which are the real purpose and mission of the Church, are, one, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God for a witness to the nations of the world …. Now the second mission of the Church is to feed the flock, as Jesus said, on the spiritual food of the Word of God.”
To be fair to Mr. Tkach, in that same sermon, he did quote from Matthew 24:14 right at the end of the message. He said, “We have a commission to preach the gospel as a warning message to a dying world.”
But he then wrote just a few days after that sermon: “My faith and confidence are in Jesus Christ’s sure and infallible promise, built into the very commission He gave His church: ‘… Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).”
Shifting the work’s emphasis to the secondary mission of feeding the flock, as opposed to preaching the gospel to the world, had a devastating, domino-like effect on nearly every aspect of the work. It turned the church inward—leading to a focus on Ambassador College, local congregations and personal evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel message as a witness took a back seat to the inward needs of the church.
Mystery of the Ages Serialization
Mr. Armstrong began serializing Mystery of the Ages in the July 1985 issue of the Plain Truth. He wanted the message of the book to reach the “largest audience possible,” and the Plain Truth circulation was around 8 million at the time.
Because of the length of the book, serializing Mystery of the Ages took a year and a half (from July 1985 to December 1986). As with any serialization, one might expect editors to condense some portions of the text. But to do so in a way that completely alters the author’s clear intent cannot be considered an abridged version of the original text—rather a corrupt version.
The most glaring deletion occurs at the end of Chapter 6—“Mystery of the Church”—in the July-August 1986 Plain Truth installment. In the book, the section begins with the subhead, “Restoration of God’s Truth to Church.” In the first paragraph under the subhead, Mr. Armstrong begins by summarizing the history of the Church of God—from the first century to the time of the end. In the book, he wrote, “From the year 1931, exactly 1,900 years (a century of time cycles) from the foundation of the Church, this small remnant of the original true Church of God began to take on new life as the Philadelphia era.” Those last four italicized words are left out of the serialization, which is significant, as anyone ever associated with the wcg would know.
From that point in the text, editors saw fit to delete a number of specific prophecies in the serialization, beginning with this one: “It had come to the ‘time of the end.’ A new spiritual vitality was infused into it. The time had come for Jesus’s prophecy of Matthew 24:14 to be fulfilled—‘this gospel of the kingdom shall be [proclaimed] in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.’ Such vital truth that had been lost was gradually revealed and proclaimed.”
In light of what we covered about the church’s commission, the significance of this omission is obvious. The Plain Truth version then omits six paragraphs about the Philadelphia era and the leader who God prophesied to raise up during that era (Mr. Armstrong, as the church had always believed). Mr. Armstrong wrote, “To this era—or to its human leader—God had set before it an open door …. This church and/or its leader had but little strength. Neither were of great and powerful stature in Satan’s world but those of this era were faithful to the Word of God. Though much of the original gospel truth, imparted to the original apostles by Jesus in person, had been lost, it was restored through the Bible to this era of God’s Church who were faithful in keeping it.”
That is missing in the serialization version. And so is this next paragraph: “It is revealed in Malachi 3:1-5 and 4:5-6 that God would raise up one in the power and spirit of Elijah, shortly prior to the Second Coming of Christ. In Matthew 17:11 Jesus said, even after John the Baptist had completed his mission, that this prophesied Elijah ‘truly shall first come, and restore all things.’ Although it is plainly revealed that John the Baptist had come in the power and spirit of Elijah, he did not restore anything. The human leader to be raised up somewhat shortly prior to Christ’s Second Coming was to prepare the way—prepare the Church—for Christ’s coming, and restore the truth that had been lost through the preceding eras of the Church. Also a door was to be opened for this leader and/or the Philadelphia era of the Church to fulfill Matthew 24:14: ‘And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.’”
After these deletions, the serialization then continues: “It was to be at a time when, for the first time in the history of mankind, the weapons of mass destruction were produced that could erase all humanity from the Earth (Matt. 24:21-22). This also was to occur just before the Second Coming of Christ (verses 29-30).
“These prophecies have now definitely been fulfilled. The true gospel has been restored and has now gone in power into every nation on the face of the Earth.”
For a person reading the book, “these prophecies have now definitely been fulfilled” refers to Matthew 24:14, Revelation 3:7-13, Malachi 3:1-5, Malachi 4:5-6 and Matthew 17:11! In reading the serialization, however, you don’t even know what prophecies Mr. Armstrong is referring to. To delete all the prophecies and then say, “These prophecies have now definitely been fulfilled,” makes no sense.
Within a few months of assuming his new position as pastor general, Mr. Tkach had already signed off on eliminating some of the strongest statements Mr. Armstrong made in Mystery of the Ages. And these just happened to be statements about Mr. Armstrong’s office, his prophesied role in world events and his God-given commission.
Other changes in 1986
In 1986, editors were also hard at work revising one of Mr. Armstrong’s biggest books—The Incredible Human Potential. On page 5 of that book, commenting on Simon Magus and his deceptive work to pervert the true gospel during the first century, Mr. Armstrong wrote, “There ensued ‘the lost century’ in the history of the true Church of God. There was a well-organized conspiracy to blot out all record of Church history during that period. A hundred years later, history reveals a ‘Christianity’ utterly unlike the church Christ founded.”
Drawing upon research from scholars and Church historians—like Edward Gibbon, who referred to a “dark cloud” that hung over the first age of the Church—Mr. Armstrong coined the expression “lost century” to describe the sparse historical record of the early Church. For wcg scholars in 1986, “the lost century” was “hardly appropriate.” After all, they reasoned, John’s writings were recorded during this time—and Polycarp followed in John’s footsteps. So how could that historical period be considered “lost”? So they rephrased it as “an obscure period in the history of the true Church.” While they felt like that was more accurate, the change unmistakably de-emphasized Satan’s conspiracy to blot out a true record of Church history.
In What Do You Mean—“The Unpardonable Sin”? Mr. Armstrong wrote, “In John 7:31, it is recorded: ‘And many of the people believed on Him ….’ But were they really Christians? Notice, beginning with John 8:30: ‘As He spake these words, many believed on Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews which believed on Him, If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed ….’ But they did not actually believe Him! They believed on Him—that He was a great teacher, as a man—they believed on the person—like millions today. But they did not believe Him—did not believe what He said—His message—His gospel. To these same people, who ‘believed on Him,’ Jesus said, just a few verses farther on, ‘… but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.’”
By removing all the italicized words in 1986, editors agreed that it would read more “smoothly.” It also removed a reference to “millions today” being deceived in the same manner as those in Christ’s day.
Years later, Tkachism would often ridicule Mr. Armstrong’s teaching about the whole world being deceived (Revelation 12:9).
Tkachism changed the church’s teaching about the human spirit within months of Mr. Armstrong’s death. In explaining why they changed the wording in The Incredible Human Potential to reflect the new teaching, they said it read “smoother,” whereas Mr. Armstrong’s explanation had “puzzled a number of readers.” That Mr. Armstrong’s teachings could now be altered for no other reason than because they “puzzled” readers must have had liberals in Pasadena eager for the next round of changes.
They also changed the meaning of the Hebrew word for God in 1986. Anyone who ever heard Mr. Armstrong discuss who and what God is undoubtedly remembers him explaining the meaning of Elohim, as he did in Mystery of the Ages: “… a noun or name, plural in form, but normally singular in grammatical usage. It is the same sort of word as family, church, group—one family consisting of two or more members—one church composed of many members—one group of several persons.”
They first introduced their different understanding of the word Elohim when they reprinted two other writings of Mr. Armstrong’s—The Incredible Human Potential and the booklet Why Were You Born? They altered the definition this way: “… a noun, plural in form, but with either singular or plural usage.” They left out the fact that the Hebrew word is like the English words family, church, team or group. And instead of it being “singular in grammatical usage,” as Mr. Armstrong said in Mystery of the Ages, it had an “either singular or plural usage.”
Years later, when the Worldwide Church of God adopted the trinity doctrine, it argued that Elohim, as it is used in Genesis 1:1, refers to a single deity. The wcg officially accepted the trinity doctrine in 1993. But like with so many other doctrinal revisions, fingerprints appeared several years earlier. In this case, it was 1986, when they changed the definition of Elohim.
On the day Mr. Armstrong died, Joseph Tkach promised to maintain the founder’s course and “not deviate from it one iota.” Yet he clearly started breaking promises that very day.
In 1995, after supporting and defending the Tkach administration for nearly a decade, David Hulme had finally had enough of the doctrinal transformation. He wrote this in his resignation letter to the elder Tkach: “The most disturbing aspect of our recent conversation on the eve of Passover, is that with some pride you stated that you had agreed with Richard Plache and Al Corozzo in the 1970s with regard to the place of the law in the Christian life. You said you agreed with them (and therefore disagreed with Herbert W. Armstrong) but felt that they were ahead of their time, and that nothing could be done. I remind you that Richard Plache was one of the prime movers in a 1975 attempt to overturn Sabbath observance in Britain. As a result he was put out of the church, along with Charles Hunting and David Ord, by Mr. Armstrong. If you agreed with these men as you claim, did you inform Mr. Armstrong of your radically different stance any time before his death?”
In his response to Hulme, Tkach Sr. did not deny that these conversations took place. He just said that Hulme had misrepresented his comments. But notice what else Tkach wrote: “I was trying to point out to you that challenges about the validity of certain doctrines, challenges that were raised by leading ministers of the church in the 1970s, caused me to realize that there were indeed doctrinal questions that had never been adequately answered.”
Notice! From Tkach’s own pen (or whoever wrote the letter for him) we discover that these were questions raised in the 1970s. They were raised by “leading ministers” at the time (many of whom were disfellowshiped by Mr. Armstrong, he failed to mention). And they were questions, at least in Tkach’s mind, that had never been adequately answered. This “nagging realization,” Tkach admitted, “troubled me.” And so what did he do? “My response at the time,” he explained, referring to the 1970s, “was to simply put the subject ‘on the shelf’ and give it little thought until years later, when I found myself, as pastor general, responsible for the spiritual instruction of the church and challenged on many of the same points.”
Can you believe that? He readily admitted to setting controversial subjects on the shelf “until years later”—when Mr. Armstrong was no longer in control! But the idea that he or anyone ever had an agenda? “Preposterous,” he says. “It was Christ’s agenda.” That’s all it was—an innocent coming-of-age story about Jesus Christ leading a wayward church out of darkness and into the glorious light. They never had any of this in mind. None of them did.
Isn’t that amazing?