“For some years now, there have been some, like vultures, waiting for me to die. They would like to come back and take over the leadership of the church in my stead.”
—Herbert W. Armstrong
Worldwide News, June 24, 1985
Garner Ted Armstrong was the man many believed would succeed his father as pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God. A gifted speaker, he was the church’s presenter on the World Tomorrow program for many years. So when Herbert W. Armstrong, in 1978, had the gut-wrenching duty of disfellowshiping him for abusing authority and conspiring to water down doctrine and take over the church, he did so with a heavy heart.
Coming out of the 1970s, Mr. Armstrong’s primary concern was getting the church back on track. “God Almighty and Jesus Christ were virtually thrown out of the college,” he wrote, “and were rapidly being thrown out of the church!”1 Approaching 90 years of age at the time, Mr. Armstrong was also concerned, understandably, about who his successor might be. Spiritually speaking, he always believed that Jesus Christ, not any man or group of men, would choose his successor. But at the same time, he wasn’t naive—he knew, human nature being what it is, that certain men strongly desired his office. His son had already conspired to take over, but failed.
So in 1981, with the aid of his legal advisers, Mr. Armstrong drew up provisions in the church’s bylaws that would prevent an imposter (like his son) from gaining control of the church. In the event of his death, the church’s Advisory Council of Elders—at that time, a board of nine senior ministers, all personally selected by Mr. Armstrong—would be vested with absolute and total authority to designate a successor. Should Mr. Armstrong die, no one could claim to be his rightful successor without the Advisory Council’s backing.
Four years later, even with this fail-safe plan in place, Mr. Armstrong was still uneasy about the question of his successor. “In a few days I will be 93 years of age,” he wrote to the church in mid-1985.
For some years now, there have been some, like vultures, waiting for me to die. They would like to come back and take over the leadership of the church in my stead. I have been deeply concerned about this, but in no sense worried. This is the church of God, not of any man. Jesus Christ is the living Head of this church. I am not.2
Mr. Armstrong then reiterated the provisions drawn up in 1981: “If Christ should remove me, He will direct the Advisory Council of Elders to select one of them to continue leading you until the coming of Jesus Christ in power and in glory.”3 So for the last four years of his life, it was generally understood within church circles that the Advisory Council—which had expanded from nine members to 14 by mid-1985—would be responsible for choosing a successor—not Herbert Armstrong.
Nine days before he died, however, Mr. Armstrong changed his mind.
Choosing a Successor
On Tuesday night, January 7, 1986, a nurse wheeled Mr. Armstrong into the elevator of his two-story home in Pasadena, California. Waiting for him downstairs, on a couch in Mr. Armstrong’s study, were the director of Church Administration, Joseph Tkach, and Mr. Armstrong’s personal aide, Aaron Dean, both of whom were on the Advisory Council. Across campus, on the fourth floor of the Hall of Administration, there sat 11 other Council members, along with the church’s legal adviser, Ralph Helge, listening in via telephone hookup. (Another Council member, Dibar Apartian, arrived late at the Hall of Administration and did not hear the discussion.)
In the days leading up to this teleconference, Ralph Helge, with Mr. Armstrong’s approval, had been working to amend the church’s bylaws to allow Mr. Armstrong to name his successor personally. Helge had also prepared the paperwork whereby Mr. Armstrong would officially designate the new pastor general.
According to Helge, Mr. Armstrong decided toward the end of 1985 to select the successor himself rather than leave the task in the hands of the Council. Why the change? Helge said it was for the church’s protection—to prevent anyone from casting doubt on the validity of the Council’s choice.4 Apparently, Mr. Armstrong wanted to remove all doubt as to who his successor would be. Indeed, in those final resolutions, he expressed concern about those on the outside—specifically his disfellowshiped son, Garner Ted Armstrong—attempting to create confusion and cast doubt upon the successor’s credentials.
Mr. Dean, however, believes Mr. Armstrong had serious concerns about some on the inside as well—particularly Roderick Meredith. “He just might succeed in getting control,” Mr. Armstrong told him, “and he should never, ever be over the church.”5 Dean’s recollection mirrors closely with what Mr. Armstrong privately wrote to Meredith in 1980, after sending him to Hawaii on a mandatory, six-month sabbatical. “In brutal frankness,” Mr. Armstrong wrote to Mr. Meredith, “you lack the charisma to lead God’s work. You do not attract—as I said before, you repel people. You are a harsh taskmaster over those under you. That is your record!” Later, he wrote, “You have a will to lead, but not the qualifications.”6
By the time Mr. Armstrong was about to die in 1986, Rod Meredith had returned to the Council of Elders. And with Council members like Raymond McNair and Dibar Apartian firmly in Mr. Meredith’s camp, Mr. Armstrong had reason to worry. “That’s why he decided to name someone,” Dean said in a telephone interview, “because he didn’t want Rod taking over, or someone else.”7
But as it turns out, naming someone himself didn’t exactly remove all cause for concern either. Ralph Helge said Mr. Armstrong got feedback from several members of the Council regarding who should succeed. Dean said he “changed his mind several times about who would be in charge.”8
Passing the Baton
According to Aaron Dean, when Mr. Armstrong decided upon Joseph Tkach as his successor, it came with certain strings attached. For one, Tkach would be elevated to the office of pastor general, but not his staff. “If you bring your staff up, they’ll lead you astray,” Mr. Armstrong told Mr. Tkach. The church’s founder wanted Tkach to rely heavily on the Advisory Council, Dean said.9
The decision to appoint Mr. Tkach as successor was drawn up in official church documents on January 7, 1986. Mr. Armstrong called for an Advisory Council meeting that same day. Since many Council members had not seen him in weeks, he wanted them to actually hear his voice of approval for the amendment to the bylaws and the appointment of Tkach. “He didn’t want an accusation that Ralph Helge and Joe Tkach just got together and wrote a letter and Mr. Armstrong never heard of it and all of a sudden he dies and bingo, here it is,” Dean said.10
Aaron doesn’t remember whether he or Ralph Helge read the final resolutions at that meeting. But it wasn’t Mr. Armstrong; he was too weak. He did, however, have enough strength to greet the Council and assure them that the documents had his blessing. He asked the members to give Mr. Tkach their full support. “[I]t was a very moving event,” Helge said in 1998. “[H]e was passing the baton to Mr. Tkach.”11
Yet, ironically, in the very documents Mr. Armstrong approved for the sake of establishing Tkach’s godly authority, what stands out most is the one office he did not transfer to his successor. Tkach would assume all the titles and offices Mr. Armstrong held except the spiritual rank of apostle.12 So Mr. Armstrong never laid hands on him. He never ordained him as an apostle. What he did that January 7 was appoint Joseph Tkach to succeed him as pastor general. That’s it.
Informing the Church
After Mr. Armstrong verbally stated his intentions before the Council, Mr. Dean suggested he also inform the church membership of his decision—again, in order to leave little room to question the line of succession. Problem is, Mr. Armstrong had become so weak, he couldn’t write or dictate a letter. So Aaron Dean wrote one in his stead, dated January 10, 1986. Above Mr. Armstrong’s signature, Mr. Dean wrote, “This is my first letter to you in 1986, and could very well be my last. Now in my 94th year I am in a very physically weakened state enduring severe pain and with virtually no strength whatsoever.” Then later,
After much counsel and prayer over the past months God has led me in announcing a decision last week to appoint Mr. Joseph W. Tkach, director of Church Administration, to the office of deputy pastor general, to assist me while I am in a weakened state, and should God choose to take my life, to place himself totally in Christ’s hands to lead God’s church under Christ, succeeding me as pastor general, in the difficult times ahead.13
Aaron read the letter aloud to Mr. Armstrong and assured him that he wouldn’t send it out unless he felt like Mr. Armstrong completely understood its meaning. “I read the whole thing to him and at a couple spots he squeezed my hand and then he actually added a word at the end. So I knew he understood it,” said Dean. The letter was mailed January 10.14
Four days later, on Tuesday, January 14, Ralph Helge told the media about the designation of Mr. Tkach as successor. According to the Associated Press, “Although the designation of Tkach was effective immediately, he would assume the various offices and titles of the church leader only if Armstrong dies.”15
Two days later, on Thursday morning, January 16, 1986, Herbert W. Armstrong died at 5:59 a.m. He was 93 years old.
Preparing the Church
News of Mr. Armstrong’s death among church members was not shocking. He was old and had been seriously ill for the last 5½ months of his life. On August 3, 1985, he left Pasadena on a round-the-world trip. He intended to visit the church’s youth camps in Minnesota and Scotland before meeting with world leaders in Japan and South Korea, but upon his arrival in Minnesota, his temperature rose by about 2 degrees and would not subside. So he canceled the rest of his trip and flew home.
After two weeks in bed, his temperature dropped somewhat—at least in the mornings; usually by mid-afternoon, it would again rise. This fluctuation enabled him to get in some office work during the last part of August and all of September.
On Monday morning, September 9, Mr. Armstrong appeared before the college’s sophomore class to present his new book, Mystery of the Ages. The following week, September 16, Mr. Armstrong delivered what would be his final sermon before church members.
Sunday, September 29, was the last day Mr. Armstrong made it outside of his home. It was the day before the church began its weeklong fall festival. Of course, even after he missed the entire festival, church members remained hopeful that God would revitalize him. Mr. Armstrong himself hoped for a positive turn.
But after two more months of the same deteriorating health, he candidly alerted church members about his declining physical state in a December 9 letter he dictated to Aaron Dean. “I had hoped for a turn to the better—so that I could return for daily work in my office—and a recovery from this illness, but unfortunately, that has not occurred.”16 He told the members he had been in bed clothes and robes since September 30—more than two months.
“Frequently I have very serious and painful angina attacks of the heart,” he continued. “I have been able to make certain necessary decisions in brief telephone contact with those at the office and will continue this as and when my very limited physical strength permits.”17 He described his involvement in the day-to-day church operations as “very limited.” He hadn’t taped a television program since August.
According to Ralph Helge, by the point of the January 7 Advisory Council meeting, “you kind of knew in your heart … that he probably would die.”18 Aaron Dean figured his death was inevitable, which is why he composed the January 10 letter for Mr. Armstrong.
The day Mr. Armstrong died, Mr. Tkach wrote to the church membership and co-workers, “I am deeply saddened to have to inform you that Herbert W. Armstrong’s illness has ended in the manner least expected by all of us.”19
Of course, God could have intervened to extend his life for several more years. But that a 93-year-old man would die—after being confined to his bed for four months with constant fever, low blood volume and heart disease—isn’t exactly shocking, particularly after the entire church was told that he may not live to “write” another letter.
Mr. Tkach, like everyone around Mr. Armstrong at the time, must have expected him to die. But maybe he wanted to be perceived as humble—as if becoming pastor general was the furthest thing from his mind. Whatever the reason, Tkach’s first comment as pastor general was strange.
The Rank of Apostle
Mr. Armstrong may not have ordained Tkach as an apostle, but that didn’t stop the successor from taking matters into his own hands. After becoming pastor general, Mr. Tkach appointed Larry Salyer to replace him as the director of Church Administration. Larry Salyer, in turn, submitted a piece for the Pastor General’s Report in which he explained how Mr. Tkach was fulfilling the office of apostle. According to Aaron Dean, that happened about a month or so after Mr. Armstrong died. When it did, Dean told Tkach that it didn’t seem right for a man Mr. Tkach just promoted to then turn around and tell everyone that his boss was an apostle. According to Dean, Mr. Tkach agreed and decided to shelve Salyer’s write-up.20 But as it turns out, it was set aside only temporarily.
Mr. Tkach announced his new spiritual rank at a regional directors conference in Pasadena, on November 21, 1986, only 10 months after he had been in office. Tkach’s announcement cleared the way for Salyer’s piece to be pulled off the shelf. Salyer wrote to the ministry the next month,
During the last several years Christ saw to it that Mr. Tkach was pressed into daily contact with Mr. Armstrong and was directly involved in virtually every major decision. Mr. Armstrong delegated to Mr. Tkach ever increasing responsibility for gathering facts and implementing his decisions. In the final weeks of his life Mr. Armstrong specifically instructed Mr. Tkach in the responsibilities of pastor general, sharing many personal experiences with him. And before his death he appointed Mr. Tkach as his successor and saw to it that the passing of the baton was legally documented and announced to the church.21
What he failed to mention is that within those same legal documents, Mr. Armstrong specifically mentioned that Mr. Tkach would succeed him in every office except apostle. Later, Salyer continued,
It has become obvious to the leading ministers at headquarters that Mr. Tkach is doing, as Mr. Armstrong was before him, the work of an apostle. … Christ has chosen him and sent him forth as an apostle to carry on His work, supported and reinforced by the whole church, as co-workers with Christ.
To leading ministers at headquarters, it had become obvious, after only a few months, that Joseph Tkach was an apostle. Mr. Salyer then encouraged the wcg ministry to explain in sermons Mr. Tkach’s newly established office.22
The next month, in the church’s newspaper, there is a reference to Mr. Tkach as an “apostle” buried on the back page of the issue. In commenting on Gerald Waterhouse’s tour of Australia, Robert Fahey said he “showed clearly how God carefully selected and trained Mr. Tkach for the responsibilities he now has as the apostle of God’s end-time church, taking up the baton from Mr. Armstrong.”23 In the issues that followed, Mr. Tkach’s new spiritual rank worked its way to the front page of the church paper—splashing across headlines: “Spirit is catalyst of unity, says apostle in Pasadena”; “Christ’s apostle ‘deeply inspired’ by trip to Jordan, Egypt, Israel.”24
With Mr. Armstrong, it wasn’t until after 17 years of service in God’s work that one of his top ministers put forward the idea that Mr. Armstrong was serving as God’s apostle. Herman Hoeh, one of the first four Ambassador College graduates, made the suggestion at a fall festival in 1951. Yet, as Mr. Armstrong later wrote, the whole idea came as a complete shock. He shook his head in “astonishment” upon hearing it and rejected it entirely.25
It was only after looking back on the fruits of his ministry—of proclaiming the gospel message of the Kingdom of God to the world—that Mr. Armstrong admitted to fulfilling the office of apostle. “Never in my life had I thought of occupying such an office,” he wrote three years after that 1951 festival.
But in the light of events, the fact of how God has set up His church today has become self-evident to all. It is God’s doing. If one does find, unexpectedly, that God has set him in such an office, there is only one choice—he must accept it with full humility, realizing personal lack, and surrendering the self totally to God as an instrument in His hands, relying wholly upon God for guidance and every power and need.26
The word apostle means “one sent forth.” Once Mr. Armstrong realized that God was indeed sending him forth into all nations with the true gospel message, then his thinking about the apostleship began to change. The “fruits,” as he often would say later in life, proved which office he fulfilled.
Mr. Tkach didn’t care so much about fruits. He just wanted the office. Like Simon Magus, who lusted for the power and authority of the first-century apostles,27 Mr. Tkach had a burning desire to be one too—even before Mr. Armstrong died. “He asked for it and Mr. Armstrong refused,” Dean says. “In fact, he asked several times.”28 Mr. Armstrong then took the extraordinary step of clearly stating in the final resolutions and directives he left the church that Joseph W. Tkach would succeed him in all his offices and titles, except the spiritual rank of apostle.29
As it happens, that’s the one title Mr. Tkach wanted most. So right after Mr. Armstrong died, he made himself an apostle.