The Agenda

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The Agenda

In his book Raising the Ruins, now available in bookstores, Trumpet executive editor Stephen Flurry exposes the reality of what happened to the Worldwide Church of God. Here is the tenth chapter.
From the July 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

One of our greatest challenges has been trying to explain these doctrinal reforms to outsiders while maintaining our credibility internally, and some groups have greatly hindered our efforts by their reporting.” —Joseph Tkach Jr. Transformed by Truth

On Dec. 17, 1994, Joseph Tkach Sr. delivered a landmark sermon, bringing out into the open several far-reaching doctrinal changes that centered around a “new” (actually mainstream) understanding of the Old and New Covenants. According to his son, “[I]t once and for all convinced the skeptics within our own church that the changes were for real and that they were permanent.” Later, he wrote, “[M]any of our members didn’t believe that the changes they were seeing in the church were real. Just as evangelicals have a hard time believing that the Worldwide Church of God has moved into orthodoxy, many of our members had a hard time believing their church was moving away from its peculiar doctrinal distinctives.”

Why would their own members have been skeptical about the changes being “for real”? Why would they find it difficult to believe the church was moving away from its past teachings?

It’s because after making the changes, the Tkaches then reassured the membership that nothing had really changed. And when rumors would circulate that more changes were coming, the Tkaches kept saying, “We will never change that”—right up to the point of actually making the change.

The change regarding the Old and New Covenants is one such example. Throughout 1994, Tkach Sr. vehemently denied rumors that the church was on the verge of doing away with its teaching on Sabbath observance, the holy days and the law.

Mr. Tkach gave a sermon in Pasadena on April 30, 1994 (a tape of which was later played in all wcg congregations), in which he denounced “rumormongers”: “They have no compunctions at all about exaggerating. Like I read from this list of rumors that are going around: We’re going to start keeping Christmas, and we’re changing the Passover, and we’re making changes to please the Protestants to get accreditation. … [W]e’re going to do away with the Sabbath, we’re going to do away with the holy days and we’re going to do away with the law.”

At the Ambassador College commencement exercises on May 20, 1994, Mr. Tkach quoted Ted Koppel, who said, “What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the ten suggestions. They are commandments.” Mr. Tkach said, “Notice he used the word are and not were, because they are still in existence today, in spite of what others accuse us of saying—‘that we are doing away with the law and the commandments of God.’ Again I say, ‘garbage.’”

Later that year, on November 12, Mr. Tkach made several more strong statements in a Pasadena sermon: “Yes, we should keep the law”; “I’m not trying to minimize the importance of the law”; “I’m not trying to minimize the importance of the Sabbath.”

Three weeks later, speaking in Washington, d.c., Mr. Tkach asked, “Does this mean that we are no longer obligated to obey the law?” His answer: “God forbid!” He later said, “Christ is saying the New Testament gospel is not contrary or contradictory in any way, shape or form to the Old Testament law.”

Then, on December 17—just two weeks later, and after a string of denouncements against those spreading “lies” and “rumors”—Mr. Tkach did away with the church’s teachings on clean and unclean meats, tithing, the Sabbath, holy day observance and the law. This, according to Tkach Jr.’s book, is when skeptics in the church finally knew that the changes were for real.

Is it any wonder why church members might have thought such changes would never take place?

Mass Exodus

After Mr. Tkach’s “Old Covenant/New Covenant” sermon, some 20,000 people left the Worldwide Church of God. Many of them settled into the newly established United Church of God—originally headed by David Hulme. Mr. Hulme had been a headquarters insider for some time—for many years heading up the communications and public affairs department in Pasadena. In fact, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Hulme was often the one who contacted outside organizations to inform them of the “positive” changes in the church. The church, at that time, desperately wanted to remove the “cult” label many outside groups had pinned on it. So Mr. Hulme would not have been considered an ultra-conservative by any means. Early on, he was very supportive of the church’s changes—at least judging by his comments as the church’s spokesman.

Yet, by 1995, even he concluded that the Tkaches had an agenda from the beginning. In his resignation letter to Mr. Tkach, Hulme wrote, “The fact that [Mr. Armstrong] chose you on the basis of continuity of doctrine and practice when in fact you believed very differently, in my mind casts serious doubt whether he would have appointed you if he had known your beliefs. That you differed so much from your predecessor explains why almost every doctrinal and administrative change caused me to inform you that something was very wrong. It is only in the light of your comments about Richard Plache and Al Carozzo, however, that I have put it all together. Apparently you and I were not agreed in the first place. I thought you were upholding Mr. Armstrong, but it now appears you were not. By your own admission you were simply biding your time.

“No wonder that my many protestations about radical change were never answered, and the changes proceeded as if no input had been given. And yet you continued to insist that nothing had really changed very much. Why? Prior to December 1994 did you feel it expedient to create the impression publicly that nothing had really changed in the church’s view of the law? Was the time still not right?”

As we noted at the end of Chapter Six, Tkach responded by admitting there was an agenda, but that it was Christ’s agenda. As if Jesus Christ would repeatedly try to deceive wcg members with lies and hypocrisy.

Please Be Honest

In a letter to Dennis Leap on April 20, 1990, Joseph Tkach Jr. wrote that Mystery of the Ages “was discontinued because we have more economical ways of providing exactly the same message to subscribers and members. The doctrinal message of the book is not being changed or stopped.”

Would Jesus Christ say the “exact same message” of the book was being disseminated four months after firing two ministers and saying the book was “riddled with error”?

Tkach Jr. wrote, “[D]on’t pretend to others that you are continuing to follow Mr. Armstrong’s way. Please be honest about it.” How ironic that statement turned out to be. It is now clear that this accusation is precisely what Tkachism was doing at the time Joe Jr. wrote his letter—dishonestly giving the impression they were continuing in Mr. Armstrong’s steps. Tkach Jr. wrote, “[N]one of the ‘seven mysteries’ explained in [Mystery of the Ages] has been changed or deleted.” The book was riddled with error and had too many doctrinal flaws to be reprinted or even revised, yet Tkach Jr. said that none of the seven mysteries had been changed or deleted?

Jesus Christ would not have given that false impression.

Assigning Scriptures to Names

Seven months before Mr. Armstrong died, Mr. Tkach Sr. identified Mr. Armstrong as the prophesied Elijah who came in this end time to restore all things. He reconfirmed this teaching shortly after Mr. Armstrong died, when he listed the “18 Truths” in the church’s newspaper, the Worldwide News.

Then, as we noted in Chapter Seven, on Feb. 9, 1988, Mr. Tkach explained the end-time Elijah prophecy much differently than anyone in the church ever had. He said “the church” now fulfills the role of the end-time Elijah and palmed it off on the membership as if it were something we had always known and believed.

On Jan. 3, 1989, Mr. Tkach took it a step further—saying it was “not appropriate” to assign scriptures to Mr. Armstrong as though his leadership was prophesied in the Bible. In his 1990 letter to Mr. Leap, Tkach Jr. explained what his father meant by saying it was inappropriate: “The intent was not to question whether the end-time Elijah prophecies were being fulfilled. Indeed, church literature had mentioned over a period of many years that these prophecies were being fulfilled by the ‘work.’ Mr. Armstrong, as human leader of the church, obviously was primary in accomplishing the prophesied task. He did not, however, claim to be the exclusive fulfillment of the end-time Elijah office. …

“Mr. Armstrong illustrated his calling and work by comparing it with the work of Elijah and Zerubbabel at times. Lessons can be illustrated by these comparisons. But, some have gone much further than Mr. Armstrong himself did in such labeling ….

“While we have attempted to curtail speculation about individuals fulfilling specific prophetic roles, there has been no fundamental doctrinal change in this area. It has always been known that both Joshua and Zerubbabel were typical primarily of Christ.”

First of all, while Mr. Armstrong certainly acknowledged the indispensable role of the church in supporting him, he did, nevertheless, teach that his specific office and role was prophesied in Scripture, as reflected by the following passage: “Remember, God does things in dual stages. … As John the Baptist prepared the way, in the physical wilderness of the Jordan River for the first coming of the human Jesus … so God would use a human messenger in the spiritual wilderness of 20th-century religious confusion, to be a voice crying out the gospel of the Kingdom of God, about the spiritual Christ, coming in supreme power and glory to His spiritual temple, to actually establish that spiritual Kingdom of God. …

“Has this happened, in your days, and has God brought you into this prophetic fulfillment as a part of it?

“Has anyone else done it?”

As Mr. Armstrong explained in Mystery of the Ages, it works like an organized team—with the coach and the players mutually depending on one another. But there is just one leader—one apostle. And for many years, the church taught that many prophecies referred to Mr. Armstrong’s office and work directly—and then to the church secondarily, or indirectly. The Tkach administration confirmed this fact before and after Mr. Armstrong died.

Then on Feb. 9, 1988, Mr. Tkach Sr. said the “Elijah” prophecy referred to the church in generalfrom the Ephesus era in the first century until now. He didn’t even mention Mr. Armstrong as part of the fulfillment! And then in his letter to Dennis Leap, Mr. Tkach Jr. falsely stated that the wcg had always taught this, saying there had been “no fundamental doctrinal change in this area.”

“I Am Elijah”

The extent of Tkachism’s deceit is plainly evident in view of the way Tkach Jr. now remembers what the church used to teach about these end-time prophecies. Now that his motive has changed from trying to sell the church members on the changes to trying to paint Mr. Armstrong with the most extreme brush strokes possible, his descriptions are totally different. In his 1997 book, Mr. Tkach Jr. says, “Herbert Armstrong used to read Malachi 4:5-6 and say that it applied to him”—not “him and the church” or “the church”—just “him.” Tkach then proceeds to quote pages 290-91 of Mystery of the Ages, where Mr. Armstrong refers to several end-time prophecies that he believed he fulfilled, with the support of the church.

Mr. Tkach continues, “Herbert Armstrong taught that he was the real fulfillment of this passage and that John the Baptist was merely an [sic] foreshadowing. … After his first wife died and the idea started to play in Herbert Armstrong’s mind—as his own ego accepted the notion and certain people began to play on his ego—he began to accept that he was personally the Elijah” (emphasis in original). Mrs. Armstrong died in 1967! This is when these ideas supposedly started playing in his mind. How then does Mr. Tkach explain his comments from 1990—that Mr. Armstrong did not “claim to be the exclusive fulfillment of the end-time Elijah office”?

Mr. Tkach told Mr. Leap in 1990 that “some have gone much further than Mr. Armstrong himself did in such labeling.” In 1997, Mr. Tkach had now swung to that very extreme. Mr. Tkach continues with this amazingly vivid recollection: “In the ’60s we would say that wcg was doing an Elijah-like work. In the ’70s we said that Herbert Armstrong himself was fulfilling the role of Elijah. … In the last two years of his life, in several sermons, he was even more explicit when he said directly, ‘I am Elijah.’ When Ron Kelly, one of our longtime ministers, heard Mr. Armstrong say this, he confessed to me, ‘I was alarmed when I heard him say, “I am Elijah.” I could handle, “I’m in the role of Elijah.” But “I am Elijah”—what did he mean by that?’”

Some five years or so after all these sermons in which Mr. Armstrong supposedly said, “I am Elijah,” Joe Jr. told Mr. Leap that Mr. Armstrong taught this: 1) these prophecies were fulfilled by the work; 2) he was not the exclusive fulfillment of the Elijah office; and 3) his calling could be compared to or illustrated by the work of Zerubbabel or Elijah. Even as late as October 1994, in another personal letter, Mr. Tkach Jr. wrote, “Mr. Armstrong taught that he was fulfilling the role of Elijah.”

Now, of course, Mr. Armstrong is supposed to have said, in “several sermons” no less, that “I am Elijah.” He apparently believed, in a very literal sense, that he “was personally the Elijah.”

In actuality, there are no sermons where Mr. Armstrong said anything like that. What Mr. Tkach now says in his book, in an effort to make Mr. Armstrong look like a wild-eyed, cult-leading fanatic, goes much further than anything Mr. Armstrong ever believed or taught.

On the other hand, what Tkach Jr. said in 1990—all but removing Mr. Armstrong from those end-time prophecies—also misrepresents the truth of what the church once taught. What Mr. Armstrong believed is clearly explained in his co-worker letter from March 19, 1981.

The question is, why opposite explanations—both of them false—in 1990 and 1997? Well, in 1990, Tkach Jr. was trying to keep members from leaving the wcg. So he gave the false impression that they were only emphasizing something that Mr. Armstrong himself taught—which he didn’t. Since that is of little concern today and since they have aligned themselves with other evangelical groups that consider Mr. Armstrong a heretic, Tkach now makes Mr. Armstrong out to be a crackpot—one who supposedly said, “I am Elijah—personally.

The Trinity Doctrine

On March 6, 1998, Pat Robertson interviewed Joseph Tkach Jr. and Greg Albrecht on his television program, The 700 Club. They talked about the wcg’s doctrinal transformation. In describing the changes that took place early on, Mr. Tkach Jr. said, “Starting in 1989, we realized that the trinity was correct and that it’s the only logical and historically [sic] way to explain that God is one in three.”

Then, in 1990, Philip Stevens wrote an article for the Good News titled “Who Was Jesus’ Father?” Somehow, this statement managed to sneak by wcg editors: “The concept of a trinity is nowhere found in the Bible. … The trinity hides from man God’s plan of salvation. The trinity doctrine maintains that the Godhead is a closed unit into which no one else can enter.”

Three months after that article appeared in the Good News, Michael Snyder wrote a letter to Watchman Fellowship, a cult-watching organization based in Arlington, Texas. Mr. Snyder said, “The question of God’s disclosure to humanity is still open and the church awaits further scholarly discussion in the field of dogmatics concerning this topic. The article ‘Who Was Jesus’ Father?’ from the November-December 1990 Good News has been declared officially null and void with respect to church doctrine.”

He later told the group, during a phone interview, “At one time the church lacked adequate scholarship and resources to fully understand how God’s disclosure to humanity had a relationship to the church activity on Earth. Now, we have reexamined it and we have come to see that it is an open question.”

Of course, these declarations were made to outside organizations that were pushing for doctrinal reform in the wcg. As far as the church membership goes, very few, if any, would have known that the Good News article had been declared “officially” null and void.

Around the same time, in the spring of 1991, David Hulme and Michael Snyder, his assistant, took part in discussions with the faculty at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. During his presentation, Mr. Hulme said he had been invited to explain the church’s position on a “number of things” and to update them on the “changes” in the wcg. He said he wanted to take them through “some of the more important changes that have occurred in the last four to five years.” When he got to the subject of the trinity, Mr. Hulme said, “Even though the Worldwide Church of God considers some positions on the trinity to be heretical (for example, all forms of Arianism), it sees the Eastern, Western, Protestant, and Modernist views of the nature of God as genuine attempts to reach a deeper understanding of God’s nature.”

As you might imagine, with these types of comments being made to those outside the church, all sorts of “rumors” and “gossip” began swirling on the inside. Was the wcg about to accept the trinity? some wondered. Fortunately for members, Mr. Tkach Sr. stepped forward to set the record straight. Toward the end of the summer of 1991, he wrote an article in the church’s newspaper titled “How Do You React to Change?” The article reflected much of the wcg’s latest discussions with Truths That Transform, Watchman Fellowship and the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Mr. Tkach clued the membership in on the church’s new position on man’s destiny to not become God. “No human being can be equal with God,” Mr. Tkach explained. “Our inheritance is to be children of God, definitely the supreme pinnacle and crowning glory of God’s creation, but not literally to be God himself.” Later, he explained, “We are, and will be, members of the Family of God. But even when we are changed, we will still be distinct from the eternal, uncreated, without beginning, supreme and sovereign God.”

Just so the reader knows, Mr. Armstrong never taught that man was destined to be on God’s level, insofar as rank, position or experience. He taught that we would be on God’s level in the same way a newborn son is on the same level as his human father—all members of one family. But Mr. Tkach said it was now inappropriate to use the father-son analogy to define our relationship with God.

In drawing these distinctions between man and God, the stage was now set for closing off the Godhead to three beings in one.

At the end of his article, Mr. Tkach said, “We do not believe the doctrine of the trinity.” Never mind that in a personal letter to Watchman Fellowship, Michael Snyder declared a Good News article “null and void” because of its comments in opposition to the trinity doctrine. Nor that, according to Snyder, the subject of “God’s disclosure” was now an “open question” in the church. Neither did Mr. Tkach mention that the church now taught the “full divinity of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—the biblical foundation for all trinitarian discussions”—as Dr. Stavrinides had explained to the ministry months earlier. Nor did he draw attention to the fact that David Hulme had been involved in several discussions with trinitarians at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

When you say, “We do not believe the doctrine of the trinity” without qualification, doesn’t that imply that the church rejects all forms and practices of the trinity? As far as unsuspecting members were concerned, putting Tkach’s “We do not believe the doctrine of the trinity” statement together with the November-December 1990 Good News article (declared “null and void” privately, but not in a church publication), the church was teaching the very same thing it had always taught about the nature of God.

One former wcg member wrote Mr. Tkach Jr. about what he perceived to be two different messages coming from the church—one to outside organizations in the evangelical world and a different one to its own members internally. Tkach Jr. had this response: “Mr. Snyder is the spokesman for the Worldwide Church of God in relation to queries asked from sources outside the church. As such, he cannot answer questions directed at him by such sources with ‘in-house’ terms, language, and phraseology. Dr. Ruth Tucker is a professor of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Mr. Snyder had to address her questions in terms she would understand so that she could comprehend his answers.

“Furthermore, it is an unfortunate fact that in the past some in the church chose to phrase our beliefs in ways that were not entirely correct. For example, the church has never believed in the concept of the trinity as embraced by many other churches. Quite frankly, those other churches cannot themselves agree on the exact nature of God. However, in our attempts to disprove their theories, we used some faulty reasoning of our own. This did not mean that we were wrong in rejecting the trinity doctrine, it merely meant that some of the proofs we tried to use to support our beliefs were invalid.”

Classic Tkachism: While we have made some changes, there is no real change. wcg members heard these excuses for almost 10 years! We are not changing core doctrines—only re-phrasing our beliefs to be more accurate technically. The reason it sounds like major changes are being made when you hear interviews with outside organizations is only because of phraseology, not because there is any real change. We must use different terms with outside observers or else they wouldn’t understand.

Eventually, of course, the church’s official statements to its membership gradually caught up with what they had been telling outsiders all along. Five months after he unequivocally said that the wcg did not believe in the trinity, Mr. Tkach wrote, “The newly printed Statement of Beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God will be mailed to you soon. … Let me make a few comments about one portion of the Statement. In the statement about God, you will notice that the final sentence reads: ‘The church affirms the oneness of God and the full divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Someone may ask, ‘Does this mean we now accept the doctrine of the trinity?’ No, it does not. The doctrine of the trinity in the Western Church attests the union of three Persons in one Godhead, so that the three are one God as to substance, but three Persons as to individualities. We do not accept that teaching; we believe that the word Person is inaccurate when referring to the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, we have accepted the trinity, but don’t misinterpret that to mean that we have accepted the trinity.

In its August 1992 booklet God Is …, the church stated, “God is one being, one entity”—“the Holy Spirit is also God”—and “the Bible does reveal three entities within the one Godhead.” When referring to the booklet in the Worldwide News, Mr. Tkach wrote, “The doctrine of the trinity did not originate in paganism, as we have traditionally thought.” But did all these statements mean the church had now accepted the trinity? Of course not, they continued to tell the membership.

The following year, in August 1993, Mr. Tkach wrote, “Simply put, the Bible proclaims plainly and clearly that there is one and only one God…When the Bible says that God is one, the word one does not refer to a ‘God Family,’ but to one God.” A little further in the article, Mr. Tkach wrote, “The Bible teaching is that there is one God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And yet, two weeks after that was written, Mr. Tkach reassured members, “In our practice and experience nothing changes. … What we didn’t previously understand was how to put our belief down on paper in such a way it didn’t lead to biblical and theological problems.” Even as late as 1993, they were saying, “nothing changes.” They were only trying to get it completely accurate on paper.

Were it not for Tkach Jr.’s interview with Pat Robertson years later—where he admitted they realized the trinity was correct in 1989—it might still be safe to assume (within the church, of course) that the Worldwide Church of God in no way teaches the doctrine of the trinity.

Their Greatest Challenge

By now you can see how convoluted and contradictory Tkach Jr.’s positions are. How could the explanation of Mr. Armstrong’s teachings change so dramatically between 1992 and 1997 when Mr. Armstrong died in 1986? Mr. Armstrong left an incredibly thorough written account of what he believed and taught. But that has not stopped Joe Jr. from dramatically altering his explanation of those teachings—all depending on the time period and the audience he was addressing.

Notice what Mr. Tkach Jr. says in his book about the difficulty they ran into when trying to explain the many changes: “Some cult watchers, ministries, churches, and pastors can be more of a hindrance when it comes to helping individuals or aberrant groups break away from their cultic theology and practice. One of our greatest challenges has been trying to explain these doctrinal reforms to outsiders while maintaining our credibility internally, and some groups have greatly hindered our efforts by their reporting.”

The reason he blames outside groups for hindering their efforts to make doctrinal changes within the church is that they reported what was actually happening! This became problematic for Tkachism because they were telling these outside groups about all the changes—even telling them that more were coming—while at the same time telling their own members that nothing was changing! They are the ones who hurt their own credibility—by lying.

In his book, Tkach Jr. explains how their church leaders, in the early 1990s, kept contacting evangelical groups in order to keep them apprised of the changes in the wcg: “As one thing led to another, we finally said, ‘You know, Hank Hanegraaff is a person we should talk to. We think he’d listen.’” Greg Albrecht wrote a letter to Hanegraaff on Jan. 5, 1994, and included with it an updated edition of the church’s Statement of Beliefs. He concluded his letter by requesting to meet with Mr. Hanegraaff. As Tkach Jr. wrote in his book, “A few days later Hank’s office called Greg to set up a meeting. From the first time we met, Hank recognized the enormity of our task [of changing the many fundamental teachings of the church] and understood that we were facing some tremendous battles. After thoroughly quizzing us about our faith and expressing satisfaction with our answers, he invited us to be guests on his radio program. Our fellowship was not ready for that at the time.”

Can you believe that? Joseph Tkach Jr., Greg Albrecht and Michael Feazell had no qualms about pouring their hearts out to Hank Hanegraaff, as long as it was in private. But they weren’t about to go on the radio with their “we’ve joined mainstream Christianity” heart-to-heart. And why? Because the membership wasn’t yet ready. The members, remember, were skeptical—they didn’t even think the changes were for real! They heard Tkach Sr., all throughout 1994, deny that the church was about to do away with the law.

Then, on December 17, the membership finally heard the same news Tkach’s fellows told Hank Hanegraaff a year earlier—that the wcg had now joined mainstream Christianity.