Chapter 7: Riddled With Error
“[T]hese things that [Mr. Armstrong] had written in that book [Mystery of the Ages] were never central—we never used the term ‘central’ to our teaching. They were just his interpretations of Scripture ….”
— Joseph Tkach Jr.
Deposition, September 8, 1998
During my father’s firing on December 7, 1989, the subject of Mystery of the Ages came up. My father strenuously defended its content, arguing that it should not have been discontinued. Joseph Tkach Jr. told him it would be impossible to distribute it, as the book was “riddled with error.” That statement shocked my father. The church membership had been told the book was discontinued because it was expensive and its content could be found in other literature. But on that winter night inside Tkach Jr.’s office, the real reason emerged.
Nine years later, during a deposition, when asked if he had used the phrase “riddled with error” during the firing, Tkach said, “I believe those were my exact words.”1 According to Tkach, Gerald Flurry felt that “Mystery of the Ages should be promoted more than it was being promoted, and I told him that it had too many errors … to promote it the way he thought it should be ….”2
We have already examined a number of changes that took place in 1986. Tkachism continued dismantling doctrines throughout 1987 and the first half of 1988—when they removed Mystery of the Ages from circulation. Based on what Tkach Jr. told my father in 1989, the changes were so numerous and far-reaching that Mystery of the Ages could not be used in any form. It was, as he said, “riddled” with error.
Names and Dates
As noted in Chapter 6, Tkach’s fellows wasted little time altering the teachings in The United States and Britain in Prophecy. Besides removing all references to ancient Assyria being Germany today, editors also had trouble with the way Mr. Armstrong delineated between Israelites and Jews.
As Mr. Armstrong taught, “It is wrong to call the Jews of today ‘Israel.’ They are not the nation Israel—they are Judah! And wherever Israel is today, remember that Israel as a national name does not mean Jew!”3 Editors removed these kinds of statements from the 1986 version, presumably to avoid offending Jews. Yet Mr. Armstrong was not trying to offend anyone. He was simply making this key distinction in support of the book’s central point:
Jews are Israelites, just as Californians are Americans. But most Israelites are not Jews, just as most Americans are not Californians. The Jews are the house of Judah only, a part of the Israelites. But when these people are spoken of as nations, rather than as collective individuals, the term “Israel” never refers to the Jews. “House of Israel” never means “Jews.” The three tribes at Jerusalem under the Davidic king are called, merely, the house of Judah.4
The italicized sentence, the most critical point in the paragraph, is what editors removed from the 1986 version.
Earlier in the book, when Mr. Armstrong expounded on Genesis 48—where Jacob passed on the birthright blessings to Ephraim and Manasseh—he explained that, in verse 16, it was these two lads who were named Israel, not the descendants of Judah. Later, Mr. Armstrong asked, “Who, then, according to your Bible, is the real Israel (racially and nationally) of today?”5 Ephraim and Manasseh of course! But these sorts of statements needed to be removed because, according to wcg scholars, they had been a “source of criticism.”6 A source of criticism? This is the central point of the entire book!7
They also had a problem with captivity dates for Judah (604 to 585 b.c., according to Mr. Armstrong) and Israel (721 to 718 b.c.). In the latter case, editors chose 721 alone as the date for Israel’s captivity. As for Judah’s, they decided to leave the attacks on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar as “generally … undated” in the 1986 version of the book.8
The significance of these changes has much more to do with prophecy than it does with assigning dates to ancient events.9
Of course, Tkach Jr. says they had no idea where changes such as these were leading. But the truth is that these massive edits, starting in 1986, damningly reveal the mindset of the same people who completely rejected the book a short two years later.
One Small Booklet, One Giant Revision
About six months after they made the changes covered above, wcg editors slashed more than two thirds of the text from the 1986 version of The United States and Britain in Prophecy—reducing the 184-page book to a meager 53 pages.
Absent from the 1987 version are the Introduction, the first two chapters and the last fourth of the book. The last four chapters of the book, in fact, are summarized in five pages in the 1987 version. Editors essentially pulled out what prophetic teeth had been left in the 1986 version. And the tiny bit they left in was highly sanitized—making it much less personal for the modern descendants of Israel (“we” and “us” were changed to “they” and “them”).
When the Tkaches announced that the book had been downsized, they explained that the larger edition had “become prohibitively costly to mail in vast areas of the English-speaking world.”10 So they made the small version only for areas with high postage costs. But—get ready for this—once they finished it, they discovered it was “Mr. Armstrong’s style at its best”! It was “so effectively written and to the point” that Mr. Tkach decided to make the small version available for everyone—conveniently making the book version dispensable. That’s how they explained it to the membership in 1987—that the booklet version was better and that it would save the work postage costs. Nothing was mentioned about the doctrinal transformation the text had undergone since Mr. Armstrong died.
The following year, in mid-1988, even the 53-pager failed to survive the editor’s knife. After a tumultuous two years in print after the death of Mr. Armstrong, editors finally laid to rest The United States and Britain in Prophecy permanently, even though members would not find out the real reason for its removal until years later.
Tkach Jr.’s biggest beef with the book is how Mr. Armstrong’s teaching supposedly “worked to foster racial prejudice.”11 In Transformed by Truth, he wrote, “Within two years of Mr. Armstrong’s death, several church leaders began discussing Anglo-Israelism12 with my dad.”13
He says within two years. In fact, by the time two years had passed, two thirds of the material had already been chopped out—and the entire book was buried a few months later. Significant changes to the text, as we have seen, were made immediately after Mr. Armstrong died. It was as if the destruction of this truth had been planned all along and that the only obstacle preventing it from happening was Mr. Armstrong being alive.
Indeed, the blueprint for the book’s demise had been drawn up a decade earlier. Writing about The United States and Britain in Prophecy during the liberal era of the 1970s, Mr. Armstrong told the church, “[M]y son, assuming an authority never delegated to him, had this most important booklet cut down to almost nothing, then put out of circulation entirely!”14
Isn’t that incredible? It happened the exact same way after Mr. Armstrong died. Yet the Tkaches claimed they had no idea where the massive 1986 edits were leading.
Jesus Christ’s Sacrifice
Many commentators analyzing the wcg’s transformation out of “Armstrongism” point to March 1987 as the watershed event that began the process of reevaluating everything. We have already seen how the changes were actually in full swing long before this. That said, however, the early-1987 change regarding Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and divine healing was huge.
Mr. Tkach Sr. first introduced the subject in the March 18, 1987, Pastor General’s Report, sent to the ministers of the church. He explained the change one week later to the entire membership.15 Tkachism has led people to assume, incorrectly, that the “healing change” meant that it was no longer a sin for wcg members to go to doctors. But Mr. Armstrong never said it was a sin to go to doctors.
In his booklet The Plain Truth About Healing, Mr. Armstrong actually said we need doctors for a variety of things. He wrote,
The great advances in the medical field enable man to do for his human family many things he could not do 50 years ago, short of actual healing. God does for us (often by miracle) that which we are unable to do. God gave man talents, mind-power (physical) and abilities that He intended us to use and develop under His guidance, and always for His glory and toward our development in the holy, righteous character of God.16
Earlier in the text, he said “[I]t is true that today most doctors prescribe medicines that are not poisons but rather are designed to help nature do its own healing.” He asked, “Do we ever need doctors?”
Answer: “Yes we do—but the true people of God do not need them to compete with God as our God-healer ….”17 Mr. Armstrong’s teaching on this subject was similar to any other church doctrine: Put God first. And even then, if someone lacked faith in God, he actually encouraged them all the more to put their trust in doctors!
If a church member simply lacks the faith to be healed by the living Christ—if he has more faith in medical “expertise” than in God and God’s promises—God’s church will not judge or condemn him if he puts himself or his child under medical treatment. If that is the best he has faith in, better let him have what help man can give, rather than no help at all!18
With Tkachism, on the other hand, church members did often judge each other—and usually the ones judged most harshly were those who chose not to rely on doctors for “healing”! In some cases, ministers even refused to anoint members, despite God’s clear command in James 5:14, because the members did not first go to a doctor.
Setting aside Tkachism’s misinterpretation of what Mr. Armstrong actually taught on the subject of healing, there were in fact definite changes made in the church’s doctrine in March of 1987. The most significant of these had to do with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
Mr. Armstrong taught that the way we are freed from the penalty of sin (eternal death) is by Jesus Christ’s shed blood. Christ died in our stead. Divine healing is based on the same principle. Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus was beaten and scourged. Numerous scriptures explain the reason for this terrible scourging: It was so we might be healed.19
Nothing underscores the differentiation between the scourging and the crucifixion like the Christian Passover. At this ceremony, as New Testament scriptures explain, Christians are first commanded to eat broken bread, which symbolizes Christ’s beaten and broken body. Then we are to drink a tiny glass of wine, which represents Christ’s shed blood.20
Along these same lines, Mr. Armstrong taught that since God’s law is spiritual,21 transgressing against that law constitutes spiritual sin—the penalty for which is eternal death. In like manner, man’s physical body functions according to definite physical laws. Transgressing against these laws also exacts a penalty—in this case, sickness and disease. In other words, sickness and disease come as a result of physical sin.
Jesus Christ died so that the penalty for spiritual sin, eternal death, might be paid and that we might receive the gift of eternal life.22 He was beaten before He died so that the penalty for physical sin—sickness and disease—might be paid in full so we can be healed. Jesus Himself explained in Luke 5:17-26 that healing is the forgiveness of physical sin.
With Tkachism, there is no such thing as physical sin. There may be a cause for physical sickness, but it is not physical sin. Therefore, Jesus was not beaten for our healing. His broken body has “far more significance,” Tkach said.23 The sacrifice of Jesus should not be separated according to the broken body and the shed blood, he said. Both blend together as one supreme sacrifice. Furthermore, while Mr. Armstrong believed it is always God’s will to heal (although it is up to God to determine when), Mr. Tkach said healing was not a promise from God, but rather a blessing—and that it was not always God’s will to grant that blessing.
You can find this kind of reasoning in the Systematic Theology Project, produced by wcg liberals during the 1970s. In attempting to water down God’s emphatic promise in James 5:14-15, the stp said, “Although this one statement appears to be written without qualification, the condition ‘if it be God’s will’ was no doubt tacitly understood.”24 Of course, you cannot find a statement like that—“if it be God’s will”—anywhere in the Bible regarding God’s promise of healing. But liberals in the 1970s believed that condition was tacitly understood. Mr. Tkach agreed and changed the church teaching in 1987, after Mr. Armstrong died.
The new teaching about Christ’s sacrifice and physical sin had a profound impact on the church’s literature inventory. In his book, Tkach Jr. said, “In 1989 we stopped circulating booklets that taught what we had come to believe was a flawed understanding of divine healing.”25 In truth, that process began immediately after the change was made in March 1987. It began with Mr. Armstrong’s booklet The Plain Truth About Healing. Upon making the change, Tkach Sr. explained,
The healing booklet will have to be temporarily withdrawn until edits and revisions reflecting this new understanding Jesus Christ has given to His church can be made. References in our literature to “physical sin” and Jesus’ body being broken for the limited purpose of paying the penalty for “broken physical laws” will also have to be revised.26
Three weeks after Mr. Tkach wrote that, The Principles of Healthful Living booklet and the reprint article “The Plain Truth About Fasting” were removed from stock. They also announced that Lessons 12, 23 and 25 of the correspondence course had been shelved in anticipation of being revised.
In 1988, What Is Faith?, The Plain Truth About Easter and The Wonderful World Tomorrow were all discarded because of “incorrect” explanations on healing and Christ’s sacrifice. They were later revised and reissued, carrying Mr. Armstrong’s byline, yet containing new doctrinal teaching that Mr. Armstrong would have rejected.
In Mystery of the Ages, on pages 64-68, Mr. Armstrong discussed a dramatic personal example of healing that would either have to be reworked or removed entirely, based on Tkach’s new teaching. The section on page 211, under the subhead “Jesus Beaten for Our Healing,” discusses physical sin and healing as forgiveness of sin. On page 317 is a reference to healing and repenting of sin. Likewise, on page 319, Mr. Armstrong refers to the laws of health. All of these references would have to be removed for Mystery of the Ages to survive.
The ripple effect of this new teaching was huge.
‘Messenger’ Becomes ‘the Church’
Joseph Tkach Jr. would have us believe that when editors chopped all that material about “Elijah” out of the 1986 Mystery of the Ages serialization in the Plain Truth, there was nothing sinister behind the deletion. It was just an innocent effort to condense the text into the allotted space. They never dreamed that their teaching on the subject would ever change. Yet the following year, the church’s Personal Correspondence Department (pcd) produced a form letter on the subject of the Elijah prophecy in Matthew 17. It read, “At the close of this present evil age, the message of ‘Elijah’ is again to be thundered to disobedient Israel as a witness and to prepare a people for Christ’s Second Coming.”27 According to the letter, the wcg was delivering this message. Mr. Armstrong wasn’t even mentioned. Yet most members would have been completely unaware of the new teaching, unless they happened to send a question to pcd about Matthew 17.
It wasn’t until early 1988 that Tkachism finally got around to explaining the new teaching to a larger audience. Tkach Sr. wrote, “Jesus said that ‘Elijah’ was to ‘restore all things,’ or get things ready. John, in his day, prepared those who listened to him ….”28 And what about the “other man”—the latter-day fulfillment of these prophecies? Tkach explained: “Just as Malachi prophesied of John the Baptist [Malachi 4:5-6] and just as the angel Gabriel expounded [in Luke 1:16-17], a people would be prepared for God. From the Ephesian era until now, the church of God fulfills that role of preparing a people for God.”29 So John the Baptist was the first-century Elijah and “the church” is the end-time Elijah! John prepared the way for Christ’s first coming, and the church prepares the way for His Second Coming. What began through John the Baptist, Mr. Tkach wrote, has “continued through the ages by the successive eras of the church of God.”30
Incredibly, this momentous change in doctrine was passed off on the membership as if it were something we had always known and believed. Mr. Tkach introduced the article by saying the church had often focused on the “general principle” of these end-time Elijah prophecies—“that of strengthening family relationships, instead of the vital primary meaning of those verses ….”31 In truth, the church had actually focused on the primary, very specific meaning of those verses—that they referred to Herbert Armstrong and the work God did through him in this end time. But in February 1988, Mr. Tkach not only made the rejection of that teaching formal—he made it sound like Mr. Armstrong taught the same thing.
What an impact this change must have had on the status of Mystery of the Ages—at that point still in circulation, though no doubt hanging by a thread. Right at the beginning of Mr. Armstrong’s final book, on page 9, is a section under the subhead “The Elijah to Come.” In it, he again emphasized the duality of these specific prophecies—the first fulfillment being John the Baptist. Yet, as he so often explained, these prophecies also refer “to a human messenger preparing the way before Christ’s now imminent Second Coming, this time in supreme power and glory as Ruler over all nations!” That statement was now at odds with Tkach’s new teaching about the church being this “messenger.”
Mystery of the Ages included another reference on page 251 about the “18 basic and essential truths” that were restored to the church through one man.
In Chapter 6, we also discussed the significance of what Mr. Armstrong covered from pages 289 to 292 in Mystery, where he said, “These prophecies have now definitely been fulfilled,” referring to Matthew 24:14, Revelation 3:7-13, Malachi 3:1-5, Malachi 4:5-6 and Matthew 17:11.32 (You will remember that all these prophecies were omitted from the 1986 serialization of the book.)
And then there is one final section at the end of Mystery, subheaded “Elijah to Come in Our Day.” Mr. Armstrong wrote,
John the Baptist was a voice crying out in the physical wilderness of the Jordan River, preparing the way for the First Coming of Christ, as a physical human being, to his physical temple at Jerusalem and to the physical people of Judah, announcing the advance good news that the kingdom of God would in the future be established. But also preparing the way before his Second Coming was a messenger of whom Elijah was a type. A voice crying out in the worldwide spiritual wilderness of religious confusion, preparing the way for the spiritual glorified King of kings and Lord of lords to come in the supreme power and glory of God to his spiritual temple, the church (Ephesians 2:21), to actually establish the kingdom of God.33
In many ways, changing the prophesied messenger from Mr. Armstrong to the church undermines much, if not all, of the material in Mystery of the Ages.
Adding all these changes together, it’s no wonder Joe Tkach Jr., at the end of 1989, told my father that getting any further use out of Mystery of the Ages would be impossible.
Riddled With Error
Early on in Mystery, Mr. Armstrong spoke about the “Babylon of religious confusion,” and how the seven basic mysteries would reveal why the religious world is so confused.34 In his first chapter, on who and what is God, he explained how the ancient Babylonian mysteries worked their way into Christian dogma.35 In the fourth chapter, on civilization, Mr. Armstrong explained how our civilization started with Nimrod and how the pagan religions of this world began with his wife Semiramis.36 Yet as we have already seen, the identity of Babylon had been watered down by Tkachism even before Mr. Armstrong died.
There is also material in Mystery identifying modern-day Assyria—they “settled in central Europe, and the Germans, undoubtedly, are, in part, the descendants of the ancient Assyrians,” Mr. Armstrong wrote.37
There are the many other “lesser” changes the wcg made, as we have discussed in the last two chapters. When Tkachism altered the Elohim definition in 1986, their new understanding contradicted the definition found in Mystery of the Ages on pages 50, 94 and 135. Their revised 1986 teaching on the human spirit differs from Mr. Armstrong’s explanation on how it is different from the animal brain, found on pages 104, 105, 109 and 237 of Mystery of the Ages. In February 1987, editors removed all references in its holy day booklet to the Israelites killing the Passover lamb on the evening of the 14th of Nisan. This too contradicted what Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery at the bottom of page 53.
Add to these the discontinuation of literature. In September 1987, the wcg removed The Incredible Human Potential from circulation—offering no explanation for the move, except that “much of the material” existed in other available literature.38 The United States and Britain in Prophecy, as we covered at the beginning of this chapter, made it through a significant revision in 1986, but then dramatically shrank in 1987 and finally disappeared in 1988. And The Wonderful World Tomorrow—another major book written by Mr. Armstrong—had a fourth of its content cut in 1987 because of the “considerable savings” it would bring the work.39
All these changes, all these massive cuts in literature, happened before mid-1988. One could hardly describe this as a slow awakening to a new understanding. These men were pushing their program just as hard and as fast as they possibly could without revealing their full intentions.
It’s no wonder the status of Mystery of the Ages had reached a critical crossroads for wcg officials by that time. Mystery of the Ages, as of mid-1988, was the church’s best-known, most-requested book. On the other hand, Tkachism believed it was “riddled with error.”
What would the Tkaches do?