Chapter 1: Absolute Power
By Stephen Flurry
“Ironically, the same authoritarian governmental structure that created the heretical environment in the first place was necessary to correct it.”
The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God
The Worldwide Church of God has not been transformed by truth over the past 20 years, as Joseph Tkach Jr. suggested in his 1997 book. The church has been transformed—no doubt about that. But not by truth. Rather, it was one of the most deceitful, treacherous and abusive transformations in the history of religion.
To understand the magnitude of the spiritual earthquake that has rocked this church, consider what it looked like before.
When Herbert W. Armstrong died on January 16, 1986, he left behind a church with 725 congregations in 57 countries1 around the globe and a powerful work going out to the world. It had a weekly worldwide attendance of 120,000 people,2 and another 210,000 outside the church donated money regularly.3 Serving these many members, prospective members and contributors were more than 1,200 ministers worldwide.4
The church’s annual revenue was $163.7 million,5 a budget bigger than Jerry Falwell’s and Billy Graham’s organizations combined.6 Religious writer Richard N. Ostling wrote a story for Time just weeks after Mr. Armstrong died in which he analyzed the growing popularity of televangelists during the mid-1980s. None of the preachers spotlighted, however—not Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell or Robert Schuller—generated as much revenue as Herbert W. Armstrong.7
At the top of Ostling’s list of televangelists was Jimmy Swaggart’s weekly tv show, which could be viewed in 197 markets as of early 1986. It was followed by Oral Roberts, airing in 192. Jerry Falwell could be seen in 172 markets, while Schuller’s Hour of Power aired in 169 cities. These programs were all dwarfed by Herbert W. Armstrong’s World Tomorrow, which could be seen on 382 television stations—far more markets than any other religious program in America8—as well as 36 radio outlets around the world.9
Herbert W. Armstrong was one of the best-known, most prominent religious leaders of the 20th century. In fact, when you consider how tiny his work was at the beginning, in 1933, and how its far-reaching influence encompassed the Earth by the time of his death in 1986, one could justifiably argue that Herbert W. Armstrong was the most significant theologian in American history.
By 1985, Mr. Armstrong’s flagship magazine, the Plain Truth, was being produced in seven languages and worldwide circulation had peaked at 8.4 million.10 Time magazine’s circulation that year was 5.9 million.11 With world population then at 4.9 billion, that meant 1 out of every 583 human beings on Earth received the Plain Truth. In the United States, the ratio was even better than that—1 in 48;12 in Canada it was 1 in 27.
Besides the Plain Truth, a newsmagazine that concentrated on current events and the fulfillment of Bible prophecy, Mr. Armstrong also produced the Good News, a monthly Christian-living magazine. Its circulation was 828,000 when Mr. Armstrong died.13 That means the circulation of Mr. Armstrong’s two most popular magazines, when combined, actually exceeded the combined circulations of America’s most popular newsmagazines in 1985—Time and Newsweek.14
For teenagers, Mr. Armstrong offered Youth ’85, distributed into 138 countries and territories just before Mr. Armstrong died. It had a circulation of 230,000.15 For those interested in studying the Bible in depth, there was the 32-lesson Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course. Over the course of 30 years, between 1954 and 1984, more than 2 million people enrolled in the course.16 By the time Mr. Armstrong died, the course was produced in seven languages and was attracting more than 200,000 applicants for enrollment each year.17 In 1985, the church distributed more than 1 million lessons.18
Then there were the many books and booklets—more than 40 million of which had been distributed over the course of Mr. Armstrong’s 50-year ministry.19 The most requested book was The United States and Britain in Prophecy—mailed to 6 million people. The most popular booklet was The Seven Laws of Success, requested by 3 million.20
Between 1980 and 1984, the church distributed 361.6 million books, booklets, magazines, newspapers, lessons and letters. According to the Pastor General’s Report, “This huge amount of literature would fill to capacity a train 6½ miles long with 624 boxcars ….”21
Add to those boxcars the record numbers from 1985, which was, in the words of the wcg’s mail processing director, “the greatest time of harvest that the work has experienced in this age. Records were established by wide margins in nearly every category of mail and phone calls.”22 That year, the church answered 1.1 million phone calls, received 6.7 million pieces of mail, and added 2.1 million new names to its database. The church responded to this flood of requests by distributing 85.9 million publications, which represented a 15.8 percent increase over 1984.23
And of the millions of requests back in 1985, one title came from the lips of new contacts, subscribers and church members more than any other: Mystery of the Ages. Written during the last year of his life, Mr. Armstrong considered it the “best work of [his] 93 years ….”24 From September of 1985, when the book arrived from the printer, to December that same year, 740,000 people wrote or called for Mystery of the Ages, making it by far the fastest-moving publication the church had ever produced.25
All this is what Mr. Armstrong bequeathed to his successor.
Now fast-forward 20 years. Membership ranks in the wcg have dwindled by 70 percent. (As of 1997, Mr. Tkach Jr. said the church had lost about 70,000 members.26 It has undoubtedly lost many more since then.) The income has plummeted by about 95 percent. The World Tomorrow program vanished from the airwaves in 1994. Ambassador College, providing liberal arts training to some 15,000 students over five decades, is now defunct: The Pasadena, California, campus closed its doors in 1990; its sister campus in Big Sandy, Texas, followed suit in 1997. The Good News was discontinued in 1990, while the Plain Truth barely survives with a few thousand paying subscribers. This is a colossal disaster by any business standard.
Then there is Mystery of the Ages: Tkachism took over in 1986 and the book was gone by early 1988, even though more than 1.2 million copies had been distributed—a phenomenal success by any measure.
All the unique doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God have been changed. All of Mr. Armstrong’s literature has been retired. All the operations he established have been either drastically downsized or phased out altogether. Most ministers and members have either fled or been excommunicated for resisting change.
And through it all, a tight-knit band of Tkach loyalists weathered the spiritual storm and the devastation left in its wake, all the while amassing a small fortune by selling off all the goods and property Mr. Armstrong once used for God’s work.
Today, in the wcg, there is no work—just truckloads of money brought in from the fire sale. They have sold off nearly everything that had any monetary value—summer campsites, fall festival sites, furniture, fine art, business equipment, books—everything. They even auctioned off personal gifts that world leaders had given to Mr. Armstrong. In 2000, they sold the Big Sandy campus for $8.5 million.27 In 2004, they offloaded the fire sale’s biggest prize: their headquarters property in Pasadena, including the world-renowned Ambassador Auditorium. Church officials were ultra-secretive about the final sum they collected for their crown jewels, but it was probably in the neighborhood of $60 to $70 million.
Whatever the final price, it was enough to make Bernie Schnippert positively giddy. “We are in a very good position financially,” the church’s director of finance told the Pasadena Star-News in May of 2004. According to Schnippert, the church now had enough to meet the church’s financial obligations and then some.28
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.”29
Later, he wrote that Mr. Armstrong “was most definitely and absolutely in charge of our church. … He was the founder, and he came on the scene as this transcendental figure whom most of our members saw as having all authority and power ….”30
In another book, written by Tkach Jr.’s right-hand man, J. Michael Feazell said Mr. Armstrong “seemed oblivious to the administrative nightmare his one-man-show style of leadership created.”31
I can’t figure out how a worldwide work that helped millions of lives—through the airwaves, with free literature, international humanitarian projects, a famous concert series, youth programs, two colleges and a high school—could ever be characterized as nightmarish, yet that is the way wcg officials today represent that history. In listening to them, you get the impression they had no choice but to remain in this church, as if Mr. Armstrong handcuffed them to the chairs at church services.
“How could the church have lied to me all these years?” Feazell asked in his book. It’s one thing to disagree with what Mr. Armstrong believed and taught—a lot of people did—but to say the church lied? “I felt taken advantage of,” Feazell continued, “spiritually and emotionally raped.” (Emphasis added throughout book.)
Raped? Because he chose to remain in a church that he could have walked away from at any time? He’s comparing his upbringing in the wcg to a woman being forcibly raped by a sexual pervert? Feazell wrote,
It seemed as though my life had been robbed from me. I could have gone to a state college and had a real career and maybe even been a real Christian. I was angry. I was confused. I was depressed. And I was disgusted with the seductive assault on the true gospel waged by Herbert Armstrong’s “one and only true church.”32
I’m disgusted too, that he would compare Mr. Armstrong’s religion to the despicable deeds of a rapist.
One Long ‘Process’
When Tkach, Feazell and their associates grabbed hold of the reins from a tyrannical despot who forced his subjects to submit, one wonders why the system of government Mr. Armstrong set up in the church wasn’t the first doctrine they changed.
Feazell insists that right after Mr. Armstrong died, one of Tkach Sr.’s “first goals was to dismantle the authoritarian approach to government in the church ….”33 Yet according to Feazell, one of Tkach Sr.’s first courses of action was to tone down authoritative language in a speech club manual—not exactly earthshaking in its magnitude.
Later in his book, Feazell admitted that when Tkach Sr. died in 1995, he “delegated the same unchecked authority to his son, Joseph Tkach Jr., making him the third pastor general of the church.”34 Think about that—even though one of his “first goals” as pastor general was to supposedly “dismantle” the church’s authoritarian government, Joseph Tkach Sr. died with the same “unchecked authority” he had inherited from Mr. Armstrong nearly 10 years earlier. And as Feazell noted, the father passed those same powers down to his son, who, at 43 years of age, became supreme head of the Worldwide Church of God in 1995.
“The younger Tkach,” however, “immediately adopted, voluntarily, a consensual style of leadership and began to act only with approval from the church board of directors,” Feazell wrote.35 But did he make any permanent revisions to the powers of pastor general? According to Feazell, the younger Tkach “began the process” of revising the church bylaws in 1996. Yet when asked in July of 2002—six years later, during a court deposition—if Tkach Jr. had the same absolute power he inherited in 1995, Feazell said that “may well be true.”36 That admission was six years after the younger Tkach “began the process” of revising the bylaws—a full 16 years after his father set out to “dismantle the authoritarian approach to government in the church.”
Real Truth Emerges
Why did it take these men so long to make this change? For one, Feazell wrote, the decision to finally begin the process in 1996 “was made easier by the fact that rigid doctrinal opposition in the administration no longer existed.”37
What a shocking and shameful revelation.
Writing as Tkach Jr.’s right-hand man, Feazell admitted that one reason Tkachism was so slow to relax the church’s rigid stance on absolute power was the strong opposition within the church against doctrinal reform! It was only after that opposition was removed that the Tkaches could then finally consider the prospect of relinquishing their total control.
Tkach Jr. said essentially the same thing in his book. Writing in 1997, he acknowledged that the church was even then working to change the way its government operated. “We do not believe that one form of church government is more biblical than another,” Mr. Tkach wrote, “and are taking steps to decentralize our ecclesiastical structure.”38
Later in the book he wrote, “There is no question that [Mr. Armstrong’s] administrative and organizational structures allowed unbiblical teaching to be believed and perpetuated.” So he blames Mr. Armstrong’s authority as the reason why “unbiblical” teachings were believed and perpetuated. Tkach then wrote, “In His mercy God has changed our doctrines first, and we are now working to change our governmental structure and polity.”39
In other words, once the changes had been made and the opposition removed, it was time to consider restructuring the government.
But how can he condemn the hierarchical government Mr. Armstrong supposedly employed to perpetuate his beliefs and, in the very same paragraph, consider that same hierarchical form to be divinely inspired because it was used to dismantle everything Mr. Armstrong stood for? Why is Mr. Armstrong’s approach likened to rape, whereas Tkach’s is a sign of God’s love and mercy?
Because that’s what Joseph Tkach says—that’s why. He just knows. Never mind Mr. Armstrong’s legacy—that he left behind a unified, financially solvent church with a committed membership devoted to supporting a worldwide work. Never mind Tkachism’s legacy of destruction—of excommunicating people by the thousands; dividing families; destroying marriages; closing colleges, youth programs and foundations; and wasting away hundreds of millions of dollars.
Never mind all that—just believe what Tkach says.
As members in the church taken hostage by Tkachism, that was our only choice, or else we were forced out.
I repeat: We were forced out! It was Tkachism, certainly not Mr. Armstrong, that forced its will on the members of the Worldwide Church of God.
Legacy of Abuse
According to a document produced in 2002, Feazell said that Mr. Armstrong “had complete authority doctrinally and administratively. Disloyalty among ministers was dealt with by firing and expulsion from the church fellowship.”40 The exact same thing can be said about the Tkaches, as Feazell later admitted in a court deposition: “Any minister of any church is required … to teach what the church’s doctrines are ….”41 And if someone “teaches contrary to church doctrine [in the wcg], then they are subject to being disfellowshiped.”42 And many were. How many is an open question, but it isn’t going far out on a limb to suggest that the Tkaches were responsible for forcing more people out than Mr. Armstrong ever was—by far. According to Feazell, since the Tkaches took over, more than half of the church’s membership and ministry has either left or been shown the door.43
Leaving aside the numbers, keep in mind the big picture. Think about the way Tkachism preserved loyalty to its administration. Under Mr. Armstrong, at least members and ministers had the benefit of knowing what they were getting into. A prospective member, for instance, could have seen Mr. Armstrong on television, requested literature and then arranged for a visit with a wcg minister. If he chose to, that individual could then study for baptism and finally become a member of the church. All along, the member would have known exactly what he was signing up for.
The same would have been true for wcg ministers under Mr. Armstrong. Most were probably trained at the school Mr. Armstrong established to support the work of the church—Ambassador College. All of them had a thorough understanding of the church’s doctrines. If a minister, over time, decided he didn’t agree with Mr. Armstrong’s teachings and started causing division, he would leave or be disfellowshiped. As Feazell acknowledged, any minister of any church should be required to teach his church’s doctrines. But again, at least that minister knew what he was getting into from the beginning. Mr. Armstrong was the founder—what he taught is what the church believed. If the minister once agreed with Mr. Armstrong’s teachings and subsequently changed, why stay in Mr. Armstrong’s church? How is it forcing your will on that individual to tell him, if you don’t preach the doctrines of this church, you don’t belong here?
With Tkachism, however, the element of force was clearly at play. At the point of Mr. Armstrong’s death, there were 120,000 people in the Worldwide Church of God who, to some degree or another, agreed with Herbert W. Armstrong’s teachings. But at the very top of that church’s governmental pyramid, surrounding Tkach Sr. was a band of men who never agreed with those teachings but somehow remained in the church. And after the founder died, these men, with Tkach’s blessing, determined to change the very core beliefs of a church that had existed for over 50 years.
And since these changes were made from the top down, by men with unchecked authority, ministers and members alike were left with only one option: They had to abandon the fundamental truths they had proved and believed and taught for years while inside the Worldwide Church of God and accept Tkach’s new teachings—or they were forced out by excommunication.
In my mind, that is using authority forcefully and abusively.
Feazell explained in his book, “Ironically, the same authoritarian governmental structure that created the heretical environment in the first place was necessary to correct it.” They were justified in using absolute power, Feazell says. “Tkach would not have been able to implement the massive doctrinal transformation that characterized the later years of his administration without the unfettered hierarchical authority delegated to him by Armstrong.”44
Realize just how stunningly blunt this admission really is. He knows—he’s admitting—that without total power, their transformation would have never happened! The church membership simply would not have allowed it! But by God’s “mercy,” they were able to use absolute power to force it down our throats—or else show us the door.
Feazell admitted that “change of such magnitude”—like what happened in the wcg—“virtually demands a hierarchical, authoritative form of church government ….”45 Furthermore, he wrote that “without such total authority, the changes in doctrine and direction would never have happened.”46 He’s not saying might, or perhaps, or maybe. Without absolute power, the Tkach transformation would never have happened.
That is abuse of power.
Feazell wrote about seven dynamics that accompany an organization in the midst of massive change. Under his sixth point, he wrote, “wcg members were frustrated with their sense of powerlessness. Not only did they have no voice in the decision to change their cherished doctrines, but in a church culture that valued being able to understand and explain one’s beliefs, they feared that they could not adequately understand the new doctrines.”47 The entire church membership, he says, cherished their old teachings—couldn’t understand the new—and were powerless to prevent the changes from happening.
That is abuse of power.
Feazell’s seventh point is this: “If you take the pressure off, people will revert to their old behavior. People tend to hope the crisis will just go away. If we were to stop teaching the changes right now and invite members to go back to the old doctrines, I am convinced that a certain percentage would do so.”48
And these men think Mr. Armstrong used his office to forcefully pressure people into believing a certain way?
It’s Always Something
At a 2002 deposition, we asked Mr. Tkach Jr. about the much-anticipated changes he had vowed to make in church governance. “Were those changes effected by the end of 1997 or early 1998?” we asked, referring to what he indicated in his book.
To which he responded, “No.”
And what had they done in the five years since Tkach released his book? “We’ve had discussions,” Tkach said. “[W]e’ve produced a manual, and we won’t make those changes until we conclude the sale of our property in Pasadena.”49
Quite a coup: Force new doctrines into the church environment and give the members “no voice” in determining the church’s course. Do away with the church’s work—the television program, most of the literature, the colleges, the high school, the cultural foundation and so on. Excommunicate “disloyal” ministers. Drive out “divisive” members by the tens of thousands. Remove all resistance. Then sell off all the church’s assets—including multiple millions of dollars’ worth of real estate in Southern California and Texas.
THEN, and only then—MAYBE—consider changing the way church government is administered.
New Financial Model
In the same Worldwide News (the in-house church newspaper) in which the wcg reported the sale of Ambassador Auditorium and the Pasadena property, the church’s controller, Ronald Kelly, announced plans for a new financial model. “As a result of the successful sale of the east campus and the sale of a portion of the west campus,” Kelly wrote, “we are now beginning plans to implement our long-desired decentralized financial model.”50
Keep this in mind: They had abandoned the headquarters-oriented work way back in the mid-1990s. The church’s mission, like many other Christian denominations, was to develop congregations of worship at the local level. Again, Tkachism had completely done away with the “worldwide work” concept that Mr. Armstrong employed. There was no work, except at the local level. Congregations worked to develop their own identities.
But the money—by the tens of millions—kept flowing into the Pasadena “headquarters” even as late as 2004. Think about that. By 1995, virtually everything in the church had been decentralized—all except for the authoritative government and the financial model!
In his article, Mr. Kelly mentioned that the process of decentralizing the financial model had begun in 2003. That year, Pasadena collected $18.6 million in revenue. From that, they returned $1.5 million back to congregations—a meager 8 percent.
But as of June 2004—with the Pasadena property pulling in an estimated $70 million for Tkachism—now church administrators were finally prepared to decentralize the financial model so that members’ tithes and offerings could actually be put toward the work that the church was doing at the local level.
Now, with his absolute, unchecked authority still intact, Joseph Tkach could divvy up the fortune acquired by selling off property paid for by the tithes and offerings of members who had supported the work done by Mr. Armstrong.
Once the spoils are dispersed, maybe then he’ll be ready to decentralize the church’s governmental model.
Then again, maybe not.