Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
If you read last month’s Trumpet feature, then you are well familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance.” (To review, as Joseph Tkach Jr. defines it in his book Transformed by Truth, cognitive dissonance “permits us to believe two contradictory ideas at the same time.”) As our court struggle over Mystery of the Ages enters its final stage, cognitive dissonance abounds in the Worldwide Church of God (wcg)—the church that repudiated all of the teachings of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong—even going so far as to ban his written works.
The appellate court in California denied our petition to reconsider the case concerning our right to print and freely distribute Mystery of the Ages. We are now in the process of appealing to the Supreme Court for final judgment on this matter.
Meanwhile, the Worldwide Church of God continues disseminating its propaganda. A member and legal adviser for the wcg, Ralph Helge, was interviewed by the Journal newspaper in its September 30 issue. Mr. Helge accused the Philadelphia Church of God of stealing and condemned our governmental structure. “Apparently Gerald Flurry considers himself above the law. But without law society becomes anarchy. Mr. Flurry teaches that in the ranking system there is God, Christ, then him, and he acts accordingly. He seems to feel he can take what he wants. Where would this stop? If he can steal what is protected by a copyright, does this now mean he can take your car?”
Of course, as we have pointed out before, it is the Worldwide Church of God leadership that is stealing and abusing its power. Even worse, they know it. They know they’ve lied to people. They know they’ve misled their members. They know they’ve booted out thousands of converts for merely adhering to what they were taught by Mr. Armstrong. They know they have no intention of ever printing Mystery of the Ages again, even though their lawyers give the court the impression they still “might.”
They know that it is they who have abused power.
The government structure within our church is an exact replica of what it was in Mr. Armstrong’s day—hierarchical. Mr. Armstrong left little doubt about how the wcg was organized when he spoke before leading ministers of the church on February 25, 1981. A transcript of his message was reprinted in the church newspaper, the Worldwide News, on March 6, 1981.
“The church is a spiritual organism,” Mr. Armstrong said, “but it is organized on God’s spiritual pattern as explained primarily in i Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 and other New Testament scriptures. Of course, God the Father is the Head over all. But Jesus Christ is the living Head of the church. He’s in heaven on God’s throne. Under Him on Earth are apostles. Apostles were given the oversight of the church and its organized work.”
Later, he said, “The basic organization pattern is the same today as it was then.” He then described that hierarchical structure, pointing to an organizational diagram while he spoke: “God is the Supreme Head over all. In heaven is God, and Christ under Him as Head of the church but under God the Father. Below we come to the earthly area. First, under Christ is His chosen apostle. Jesus said by their fruits you shall know them.”
As everyone in the church believed, Mr. Armstrong was the one who served underneath Christ as His chosen apostle. “So now we are incorporated under myself,” Mr. Armstrong said with customary plainness. Yet, as all members understood, Mr. Armstrong relied on regular input from advisers and counselors. He continued, “I am appointing an Advisory Council of Elders, not a board of directors. This type of corporation doesn’t require a board of directors. I want an advisory council…because Solomon says in the multitude of counsel there is safety.”
That’s the way Mr. Armstrong organized the government in the Worldwide Church of God—from the top down. He made no apology for that—and neither do we. Of course, Mr. Armstrong forced no one to submit to his leadership. All members voluntarily subjected themselves to his authority, much like an employee would submit to the owner of a company. If members did not like it, they were free to leave. Indeed, some did over the years.
Predictably, 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” (p. 184).
Later, he wrote that Mr. Armstrong “was most definitely and absolutely in charge of our church…. Since he didn’t become a captain of industry in advertising, he ended up becoming a captain of religion…. 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, a man to whom members felt God spoke directly” (p. 185).
In truth, we do believe God revealed truth directly to Mr. Armstrong—that’s the main reason we printed Mystery of the Ages. We do believe Mr. Armstrong had final say and authority in the church, under Christ of course.
But where we strenuously disagree with Mr. Tkach’s evaluation is how Mr. Armstrong used that authority. He most certainly was not a despot. He led the church like a loving father—perhaps more like a grandfather, since he was so much older than most of the members.
Some “on the outside” may have considered him a theological despot, but those of us “on the inside” saw his dedication to God’s work. He worked tirelessly, well into his 90s, until the day he died. This, no one can deny. He loved God’s work. And he loved his fellow-laborers.
Employed by Christ
Worldwide Church of God lawyers deposed my father on September 2, 1998. I’ll draw your attention to one line of questioning in particular as yet another example of their penchant for cognitive dissonance. The wcg’s lead attorney, Allan Browne, initiated the exchange:
Browne:Do you have an employment agreement with the Philadelphia Church of God?
Browne:Are you employed by the Philadelphia Church of God?
Browne:Do you work full time for the Philadelphia Church of God?
Flurry:I do not. No, I do not.
Browne:You do not. Do you work part time for the Philadelphia Church of God?
Browne:For whom do you work?
Flurry:Of course, if you look at it spiritually, I’d say I work for Jesus Christ.
Not giving up, Mr. Browne kept trying to corner my dad. After asking if he received a paycheck from the church, Browne then asked for the name of the payer on the check. To which, my dad responded, “There is the name Philadelphia Church of God, but it’s signed by me.”
“So you sign your own check?” Mr. Browne asked.
“Yes,” came the reply.
It might seem like a meaningless exchange. But think about this for a moment—the wcg has harshly criticized the “absolute power” Mr. Armstrong wielded. They have criticized us for the same thing. So doesn’t it seem odd that they would try to coerce my dad into admitting he was employed by the church? Shouldn’t they, of all people, know that the Philadelphia Church of God did not “hire” Gerald Flurry? Don’t they know that Gerald Flurry is the one who raised up the Philadelphia Church of God? Didn’t Ralph Helge say Gerald Flurry could basically do “whatever he wanted” to do as head of the pcg?
The answer to all of these questions is yes. The question, then, is why did they want my dad to admit he was employed by the church?
“Work for Hire”
Mr. Browne had hoped my dad would say he worked for the church because it would lend credence to his case. You see, from the beginning, they have tried to convince the court that Mr. Armstrong was employed by the church and that Mystery of the Ages was produced on a “work for hire” basis. In other words, the church “hired” Mr. Armstrong to produce the work and, now that he is dead, “the church” can do what it wants to do with the book—which is to discard it and keep anyone else from ever printing it again.
Here’s how the wcg tried to explain it in their motion for summary adjudication, filed on February 8, 1999 (emphasis added): “Herbert W. Armstrong served in various capacities with the wcg, including as pastor general, president, chairman of its board, and as an employee. He considered himself an employee and, at one point, had a written employee agreement”—the brief then references Ralph Helge’s deposition as its source. Later, the wcg argues, “As a work for hire, the copyright is registered in the wcg’s name.”
This is yet another example of how the wcg speaks out of both sides of its mouth. To the general public, they say, Mr. Armstrong was a tyrant—a dictator—a theological despot. He ruled with a rod of iron. No one dared question him. He had absolute authority.
To the judicial system, however, the wcg argues that the churchcontrolled Mr. Armstrong! The board had final say, they insist. The church hired him to produce Mystery of the Ages—that’s why the copyright in the book says “Worldwide Church of God” and not “Herbert W. Armstrong.”
To cover their tracks, the wcg has demanded that all of their depositions be kept in strict confidence. They do not want the general public to see how Ralph Helge insists that Mr. Armstrong was controlled and supervised by a board, that the board even had the power to remove Mr. Armstrong from office.
They want this argument kept confidential because they know it’s pure nonsense. You cannot have it both ways. Mr. Armstrong either controlled the “board,” or the board controlled him.
Perhaps after this legal struggle is over, we will be able to publish some of the information in the wcg’s depositions. But for now there is plenty of public information available to expose their duplicitous deceit.
The Last Domino
Transformed by Truth, as we covered last month, chronicles the many doctrinal changes that have transformed the Worldwide Church of God over the past 14 years. On page 98, Mr. Tkach acknowledges that the church is now working to change the way its government operates. “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.”
One wonders what “steps” they are taking and how much progress they have made since that was written in 1997. But more than that, I wonder about the timing of such a change in government structure.
Notice this revealing quote from Mr. Tkach’s book, on page 186: “There is no question that [Mr. Armstrong’s] administrative and organizational structures allowed unbiblical teaching to be believed and perpetuated.” What he is saying is that Mr. Armstrong’s unquestioned authority forced unbiblical teachings on the membership. He continues, “In His mercy God has changed our doctrines first, and we are now working to change our governmental structure and polity” (emphasis mine).
Did you catch that? In other words, Tkach Jr.’s unquestioned authority has forced all these changes upon the membership! And now that the transformation is virtually complete, he’s looking into restructuring its government. How convenient.
Now let’s look at the facts to see who really has abused his power.
Passing the Baton
Here is a snapshot of the Worldwide Church of God at or around the time of Herbert Armstrong’s death: It had an approximate membership of 100,000. Another 100,000 were considered co-workers (non-members who regularly contributed to the church financially). Its annual income exceeded $200 million, the bulk of which paid for World Tomorrow television time, print and distribution costs, salaried personnel and Ambassador College operations.
In 1985 alone, The World Tomorrow was beaming around the world on more than 400 stations. That year, the church distributed 85.7 million publications. The Plain Truth carried a monthly circulation of 8.4 million, the Good News 828,000 and Youth magazine 224,000. The church received 6.7 million pieces of mail over those 12 months, answered 1.1 million phone calls and added 2.1 million new names to its database. Mystery of the Ages was its most popular piece of literature, requested by more than 750,000 people the last half of 1985.
This is what Mr. Armstrong bequeathed to the Tkach administration. With it, he also handed over “absolute power” to care for the church’s best interests by administering God’s law of love.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
One of Mr. Tkach Sr.’s first administrative decisions was to reopen the Big Sandy campus of Ambassador College. Five weeks before he died, Mr. Armstrong announced plans to close the campus so that the church could focus its energies and resources on the headquarters campus in Pasadena. After receiving criticism for reversing Mr. Armstrong’s ruling, Mr. Tkach told members that Mr. Armstrong never said he wanted to close Big Sandy.
Barely six months into his administration, Mr. Tkach Sr. started de-emphasizing Mr. Armstrong’s office and exalting his own. He omitted several references to Mr. Armstrong’s office in the serialization of Mystery of the Ages that appeared in the Plain Truth’s July 1986 issue. By January 1987, after just one year at the helm, Tkach Sr. referred to himself as an apostle, the highest human rank mentioned in scripture. Mr. Armstrong, we should note, did not anoint Mr. Tkach as apostle when he handed over the reigns of government in 1986. He appointed him pastor general.
Mr. Tkach used every bit of his self-appointed power in initiating change. In 1987, he changed the church’s long-standing position on healing and shortened the church’s most popular book, The United States and Britain in Prophecy, chopping 70 percent of Mr. Armstrong’s original material.
In 1988, he discarded The United States and Britain in Prophecy altogether, along with Mr. Armstrong’s best work, Mystery of the Ages. He also began pursuit of accreditation for Ambassador College, saying the school would be forced to close down unless it conformed to the accreditation board’s strictures. That, of course, was not true. After more criticism, Mr. Tkach tried to convince members that Mr. Armstrong had always wanted the school to be accredited anyway—also untrue. The following year, Mr. Tkach closed the Pasadena campus and expanded activities at Big Sandy, completely reversing, in just three years, Mr. Armstrong’s final instructions for the college’s future.
In 1989, Mr. Tkach quietly discontinued The Plain Truth About Christmas and The Missing Dimension in Sex, the latter without any explanation offered whatsoever. That year, he also told members not to assign scriptures to personalities, calling those who did “spiritually presumptuous.” Mr. Armstrong, of course, did that routinely. After some members brought this to Mr. Tkach’s attention, he said Mr. Armstrong never assigned scriptures to personalities.
Concerning Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Tkach first attributed its removal to cost. He also said it had a few minor errors that needed updating. As late as 1990, he insisted that no doctrines in the book had been changed or altered, even though his son admitted privately the year before that the book was “riddled with error.”
In 1991, the church reversed its unique position on the “born again” doctrine. After a flood of negative response to the change, remarkably, Mr. Tkach said there was “no change”—only a clarification. That year, the church also changed positions on the kingdom of God, the exclusivity of the church and the fact that Christ could have sinned. They discontinued the booklets Who or What is the Prophetic Beast?, Why Were You Born?, All About Water Baptism and The Wonderful World Tomorrow. Yet, even still, when asked about the changes, they consistently responded, “Changes? What changes?”
In 1992, Mr. Tkach accepted the traditional trinity doctrine, said the Ten Commandments were important but not enough, and taught that members were now “saved.” He discontinued the booklet Why Marriage? and introduced the new booklet God Is…, paving the way for changing the Godhead doctrine. Members no longer bought into the “What changes?” defense. So late that year, Mr. Tkach finally admitted things had changed, sort of. Incredibly, he said Mr. Armstrong had, on his deathbed, commissioned him to look into the “very changes” that had been made.
In 1993, they reversed positions on the God-family doctrine, insisted that God does not have a body and said that Jesus was not the God of the Old Testament—all in stark contrast to Mr. Armstrong’s teachings.
In early 1994, they announced a “new, more effective way” of using the television medium by canceling The World Tomorrow program in favor of running occasional commercials. It was as if the Tkach administration was incapable of embarrassment. The real reason they pursued this new, more effective way of using television was because church membership and income were plummeting.
When the college finally obtained accreditation in 1994, the church still insisted it was what Mr. Armstrong always wanted, even though he had condemned it as late as six months before he died. Ironically, after saying they needed accreditation to survive, upon finally obtaining it, the college folded up. In trying to make sense of what happened, the church actually pinned the blame on Mr. Armstrong: “He chose not to make provisions for the long-range operation of the church or for Ambassador” (Gilmer Mirror, Jan. 4, 1997).
Yet, despite all this “positive change” and “growth”—even as the church itself was falling apart—Tkach Sr. retained all of his autocratic power right up until he died of cancer in the fall of 1995. He used that self-appointed authority to anoint his son, Joseph Tkach Jr., as absoluteruler of the church.
Tkach Jr., as he admits in his own book, has also retained full authority and power throughout the entire “transformation.” Only now, after “God” has seen fit to “change the doctrines first,” will he consider altering the church’s governmental structure.
What a sham. He knows, of course, that he couldn’t have seized control of the church, betrayed Mr. Armstrong’s ideals and silenced his voice by banning his written works were it not for the “absolute power” he has presumably come to detest. Joseph Tkach Jr. knows that were it not for abusing his own absolute power, this “innocent” transformation would have never come about.