Note: On April 3, 2009, the Worldwide Church of God officially changed its name to Grace Communion International.
Throughout most of its history, the Worldwide Church of God – founded and led by Herbert W. Armstrong – was, theologically, a cult of Christianity.
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Among other things, the church rejected many essential teachings of the Christian faith, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by grace through faith alone.
Sociologically, the movement had many cult-like elements as well.
However, starting in the mid 1980’s under Joseph Tkach Sr, and later his son, Joseph Tkach Jr. – the church’s current leader – the Worldwide Church of God has undergone major changes in doctrine to the extend that is has rejected its heretical teachings, and instead has embraced orthodox Christianity.
Grace Communion International describes its name change in the introduction to a chapter relating the history of the church:
In the early 1930s, Herbert Armstrong began a ministry that eventually became our denomination. He had many unusual doctrines. These he taught so enthusiastically that eventually more than 100,000 people attended weekly services. After he died in 1986, church leaders began to realize that many of his doctrines were not biblical. These doctrines were rejected, and the church is now in full agreement with the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. To reflect these doctrinal changes, in April 2009, the denomination changed its name to Grace Communion International. This name better reflects who we are and what we teach. For a press release, click here. For a letter of further explanation, click here.
– Source: A Short History of Grace Communion International
We highly encourage researchers to read the entire chapter, as well as the online book Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach: “Transformed by Truth: The Worldwide Church of God Rejects the Teachings of Founder Herbert W. Armstrong and Embraces Historic Christianity. This Is the Inside Story.”
Living Hope Video Ministries made a documentary in which leaders and laypeople describe their church’s journey from heresy to orthodoxy:
It should be noted that from the 1970s through to the 1990s many splinter groups left the then Worldwide Church of God. These groups hold on to most or all of Armstrong’s unbiblical teachings, and reject the changes in doctrines and practices introduced by Joseph Tkach Sr. and Joseph Tkach Jr.
On Jan. 7, 1934, the Radio Church of God took to the air with the remarkable teachings of its founder, a former advertising man named Herbert W. Armstrong. Among them: that the British and their colonists in America had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, that God was not a Trinity but a family (Father and Son, but no Holy Ghost) and that the apocalypse would begin in 1936 (later postponed to 1943, then 1972, then indefinitely).
On his program, ”The World Tomorrow,” and in his magazine, the Plain Truth, Mr. Armstrong called his beliefs the product of methodical explication of the Bible, which he said was ”a coded message not allowed to be revealed and decoded until this time.” Members contributed up to 30% of their income. Some attended the church’s Ambassador College and joined a media empire that strove to link current events to prophecies of a coming ”Tribulation.” Renamed the Worldwide Church of God, the congregation claimed 100,000 members and a $131 million annual budget when the founder, who called himself ”Christ’s chosen apostle,” died in 1986 at age 93.
Then his successor had a message of his own for the faithful: Mr. Armstrong was dead wrong. Joseph Tkach Sr., whom Mr. Armstrong had anointed just a week before his death, began abandoning the church’s unusual doctrines one by one. In 1989 he suspended publication of the founder’s final summation, ”Mystery of the Ages,” a 381-page work that Mr. Armstrong had called perhaps ”the most important book written in 1,900 years.” Half of the church’s members left. Tithes dwindled. The church was forced to slash its payroll drastically and liquidate a real-estate empire that had included campuses in Texas and England. Last year it sold its
48-acre Pasadena headquarters complex, including one of California’s leading concert halls, to condo developers.
Through it all, a splinter group in Oklahoma continued to take Mr. Armstrong at his word.
Source: Crying Copyright Violation, Church Demands Money Donated to Splinter [Accessible by WSJ Subscribers only] , Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2001
David Covington, a former WCG pastor, wrote:
His [Herbert W. Armstrong’s] widely-circulated message was an eclectic mixture of cultic doctrine, Jewish observances and Seventh Day Adventism. The church strictly observed the Saturday sabbath, Jewish festivals, and the clean meats of Leviticus 11. Members were required to give upwards of 30% of their incomes to the church. The ministry of the group controlled the membership through fear and manipulation and decided who they could date, how they could dress, what they could eat, etc. Members were not allowed to wear make-up, observe birthdays or participate in Christmas, Easter or Halloween.
The group believed in British Israelism, the view that the white anglo-saxon Protestants of America and Britain are the "pure" descendants of ancient Israel and God’s true people on earth. This was a major component of Armstrong’s "theology". In addition to rejecting traditional orthodox views of heaven, hell, eternal punishment and day of salvation, Armstrong also taught that members of the WCG would actually become Gods themselves after the resurrection, a twist on Mormon doctrine.
Source: What is the Worldwide Church of God? (Article by David Covington, ex-WCG pastor, who is also critical of the new WCG) [No longer online]
Kurt van Gorden writes:
Once known far and wide as the cult of Armstrongism, [the Worldwide Church of God] now, through repentance, joins hands with conservative Christians in heralding the gospel. Its official organ, Plain Truth magazine, embraces the very doctrines its past issues condemned. It interviews contemporary Christian leaders it once derided. It accepts advertising from various Christian publishers it once shunned.
The Worldwide Church of God, originally founded by Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986), was led through this remarkable change by his successor, Joseph W. Tkach (1927-1995). He reversed Armstrong’s most damnable doctrines in full acceptance of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, the person and deity of the Holy Spirit, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by grace through faith alone. Gone is Anglo-Israelism. Gone is the bondage of legalism as a test for fellowship. Gone is the God Family of divine humans. Gone is the exclusivism and cultism.
Not all followers of Armstrong, whose teaching we term ”Armstrongism,” accepted this welcomed change. Joseph W. Tkach and the administrators made earnest attempts to hold the church together during their doctrinal reexamination period. But those dedicated to Armstrong’s cultism grew impatient, forming about fifty splinter groups from 1985 to 1995. These groups are disassociated from the Worldwide Church of God and each claims succession from Armstrong. Preceding them, another fifty splinter groups separated from Herbert W. Armstrong during his lifetime. Armstrong’s teaching bred a hundred factions of which ninety presently remain. The founder’s son, Garner Ted Armstrong, leads quite a successful movement with the Church of God, International. Garner Ted Armstrong was once viewed by millions on television as the flamboyant commentator of The World Tomorrow program. Amid charges of sexual misconduct, his forced departure from his father’s domain landed him in Tyler, Texas, with thousands of television followers. His playboy lifestyle followed him into the 1990’s with new charges of sexual misconduct, again forcing a temporary step-down from his new church (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 23, 1995). Nevertheless, faithful Church of God, International members reinstated him as their iconic representative on 315 cable stations in North America. His espoused doctrines follow that of his father, namely, denial of the Trinity, denial of the bodily resurrection, and denial of biblical salvation.
Source: Appendix A: The Worldwide Church of God From Cult to Christianity, Kingdom of the Cults, by Walter Martin, (Hank Hanegraaff, General Editor), Bethany House Publishers, 1997. Appendix updated and written by Kurt van Gorden.
Others remain skeptical, and claim the changes have not gone far enough.
However, despite the positive doctrinal changes and widespread acceptance by Protestant Christianity, it is the belief of many who have left the WCG group that many abusive and cultic dynamics remain, including financial manipulation, a complete lack of accountability and a totalistic hierarchy in which the Pastor General controls the church and its assets (see WCG bylaws).
What is the Worldwide Church of God? [No longer online] (Article by David Covington, an ex-member, critical of the new WCG)
On the one hand the church is open and honest about its past errors. On the other hand, there is some concern that the church also insists it has a Christian heritage and that Herbert W. Armstrong was not a false prophet. Reality is that while the Worldwide Church of God claimed to be a Christian movement, it clearly was not. At best, it was a cult of Christianity. And since Herbert W. Armstrong made many false prophecies, he most certainly was a false prophet.
That said, the changes that have taken place within this movement are significant and highly encouraging.
Professor James Bjornstad offers the following perspective:
A. Members of the Worldwide Church of God who are part of the "New Covenant," i.e. those who have had a personal experience with Jesus Christ and have truly accepted the doctrinal changes initiated by the Tkachs, all things being equal, should be considered our brothers and sisters in Christ.
B. Those members who are part of the "Old Covenant," who have rejected the doctrines taught by the Tkachs, should be considered as unbelievers. They need to hear again and accept the truth about the nature of God, the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, and salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Source: Overview, Worldwide Church of God
Associated Press Summarizes WCG Theology and Cultural Change Good overview of various WCG viewspoints, and the radical changes that have occured in this movement.
Church Sells Armstrong’s Works "Nineteen books by founder sold to Worldwide Church of God splinter group.", Christianity Today, June 17, 2003
Reversing course, the financially struggling Worldwide Church of God has agreed to sell the rights to 19 books by church founder Herbert W. Armstrong to a splinter group. Announced March 12, the $3 million settlement ends a costly round of litigation. It also allows the Philadelphia Church of God (PCG) to reproduce Armstrong’s teachings.
Phil Arnn of Watchman Fellowship, a Christian research and apologetics ministry, said the deal raises an ethical question about the WCG.
“These are heretical doctrines that are destructive to the eternal life of anyone who comes under their influence,” Arnn said. “To have profited from the release of the copyrights is a matter that I would think [would be] very troubling to the conscience.”
Source: Church Sells Armstrong’s Works
Church struggles with changes in its mission, financial woes Pasadena Star News, Jan. 26, 2003
David Covington’s Nine Fundamental Problems with the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) by a former WCG pastor
Doctrinal Aftershocks "Worldwide Church of God seeks a new start in the face of fresh opposition.", Christianity Today, June 17, 2003
Ten years ago, leaders in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) began denouncing the fringe beliefs of their founder and transforming their church into an evangelical denomination. This revolutionary theological shift caused congregations and families to splinter. It also sparked a financial Armageddon in the highly visible movement of 150,000 people.
Now church leaders propose a physical shift that they say will determine the church’s future. They want to turn their valuable 55-acre Ambassador College campus in upscale Pasadena into about 1,500 residential units. Church officials say selling the headquarters will secure the church’s financial foundation, provide pensions for its pastors, and create much-needed housing for city residents.Source: Doctrinal Aftershocks
The Road To Damascus? Apr. 27, 1996 WORLD Magazine article, subtitled, "Long written off as a cult, WCG takes an evangelical step."
The Two Faces Of The Worldwide Church Of God PFO acknowledges the changes that have occured within the WCG, but also takes note of some serious issues that still cause concern.
Transforming The Truth The Worldwide Church of God
Continues to ”Make” History. A critical article, but Personal Freedom Outreach
Watchman Fellowship articles on WCG Collection of helpful articles, reflecting Watchman Fellowship‘s balanced approach. Excellent starting point for gaining an understanding of the issues involved.
The World wide Church of God: From Cult to Christianity Apendix to Walter Martin’s "Kingdom of the Cults"
The Worldwide Church of God’s Orthodox Bandwagon an article from Personal Freedom Outreach. PFO welcomes the changes that have taken places, but also explains why it cautions against overly optimistic assessments of the new WCG.
If the church has made such a transformation by the grace of God, why have there been such concerted efforts to adopt a revisionist position as to its founder and history and maintain a "Christian" heritage?
The Worldwide Church of God’s Orthodox Bandwagon
The Worldwide Church of God: Resurrected into Orthodoxy by Doug LeBlanc
Discovering the Plain Truth : How the Worldwide Church of God Encountered the Gospel of Grace by Larry Nichols, George Mather. In this account of recent developments in the Worldwide Church of God, the authors tell the nearly unprecedented story of a religious body turning away from its unorthodox beliefs and toward historic Christianity.
The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God by J. Michael Feazell (Editor). The fascinating story of the remarkable and unique transformation of the Worldwide Church of God from heretical sect to mainstream evangelical denomination, told by a long-time insider and church executive.
» Religion News Blog’s Worldwide Church of God news tracker
» Database of archived news items
(Includes items added between Oct. 25, 1999 and Jan. 31, 2002. See about this database)
(Mar. 31, 1999) The Year of Believing in Prophecies
Grace Communion International, Wikipedia entry
Statement of Beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God March 2008 copy from the – then — main WCG site. See also: Grace Communion International Statement of Beliefs
Worldwide Church of God Profile By Watchman Fellowship
Exit & Support Network Aiding victims spiritually and emotionally abused by Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots
The Painful Truth Extensive site. "A collection of Facts, Opinions and Comments from survivors of Armstrongism The Worldwide Church of God."
MarkTab Ministries WCG Homepage Mark Tabladillo’s extensive site, covering just about every aspect of WCG history, theology, and controversy. Excellent collection of research resources.
Worldwide Church of God Official site
Note: This section lists only some of the many splinter groups.
Church of God Splinter group (1998) of the United Church of God, which itself is a splinter group of the WCG.
Church of God – A Christian Fellowship Successor of WCG splinter group, Global Church of God.
Church of God International Splinter group of the WCG. Sponsors the ”Armor of God” literature and TV shows.
Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association Splinter Groups of the WCG. (About Garner Ted Armstrong)
United Church of God Splinter group of the WCG