from the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, page 5. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Unprecedented Changes Affect Worldwide Church of God
Dramatic changes have turned the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) upside-down since the January 1986 death of founder Herbert W. Armstrong. The changes are so great and so extraordinary that some long-time cult watchers believe the WCG may be moving toward Christian orthodoxy.
Others, however, are warning that the sweeping doctrinal changes -- involving the nature of God (and the doctrine of the Trinity), the nature of salvation, and an apparent shift away from the sect's controversial belief in Anglo-Israelism -- may be cosmetic changes only, designed to make the 57-year-old sect appear more Christian.
Leading the charge to reform the WCG is Herbert W. Armstrong's hand-picked successor, Joseph W. Tkach (pronounced Ti-Kotch). Although Tkach has been under fire from some conservative elements in the 140,000-member church, which is based in Pasadena, California, the criticism seems to have made him more determined to institute reforms.
In recent WCG publications, Tkach has criticized Armstrong's theology in certain areas, and he has lashed out at some of his critics. For example, in an editorial he wrote in the May 21, 1990 Worldwide News (a WCG news publication), Tkach was emphatic about moving quickly with his agenda for changing the WCG. He then denounced the "predatory prophets" who criticized his departures from Armstrong's teachings, adding that Armstrong was wrong about many things, "especially having to do with prophecy."
(Since Tkach has taken over, criticism has come from WCG splinter groups, which have formed in an effort to uphold Armstrong's teachings. The Pasadena headquarters has also become the target of regular picketing campaigns by disgruntled former members.)
One reason for the strong reaction against Tkach's innovations is that church members believed Herbert W. Armstrong was "God's Holy Apostle" and they looked at his revelations as infallible. Although Armstrong at first distanced himself from the designation of an apostle, he clearly taught that the Christian churches had been doctrinally astray since the first century and that God had decided to restore the truth to the world through him in the same way God raised up Noah, Moses, Christ, and the twelve disciples.[*] He taught that he had unlocked a hidden code to understanding the Bible.
According to WCG spokesman Michael Snyder, the church began a "complete doctrinal review" in 1986, which is continuing. Snyder added that more recently the WCG began a two-year project that is looking at some of the main WCG doctrines, such as their distinctive view of the Trinity and Anglo-Israelism. "We're trying to be honest with the biblical record," Snyder said in an interview.
The review so far has resulted in the church no longer printing or offering copies of Armstrong's book, Mystery of the Ages, which had been an important doctrinal book. Also, Armstrong's book, The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, has been extensively revised and shortened. (The book delves into Anglo-Israelism -- the theory that the so-called Lost Ten Tribes of Israel migrated to Northern Europe, the British Isles, and later to the U.S.) Snyder added that the church now allows its members to celebrate birthdays and receive medical care -- practices once forbidden by Armstrong.
Snyder said the church could have also opted to revise Mystery of the Ages. But "we feel it doesn't represent what the church believes, and that it would be dishonest to change it" while leaving Armstrong's name on it.
WCG scholars are working on a new statement on the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of God, Snyder said, and added that he can't say in which direction the church will go. But during an October 22, 1990 "Truths that Transform" radio program (produced by D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida), portions of a private WCG working paper on the Trinity were discussed, along with speculation that the long-standing WCG view of the Godhead might be revised.
Historically the WCG has affirmed a belief in only one God. But Armstrong defined "God" not as a Trinity, but as a collective term like "church" or "family." He said the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force and is therefore not a member of the God "family" as God the Father and Jesus Christ are. He also added that God the Father and Christ plan to reproduce themselves in humans so they can add many members to the God family. Therefore, humans will also someday become God, the WCG has taught.
Even after Armstrong's passing, the WCG steadfastly held to that doctrine. An article in the church's November-December 1988 Good News magazine affirmed: "You are destined to become God! Shocking? Unbelievable? If you understand the purpose of God's government, you will not be surprised....God is in the process of reproducing Himself in you! You look like Him, and ultimately He wants you to be like Him in every way: body, mind and spirit....You will be what He is -- God!"
Now, however, the ideas in that article have been declared "officially obsolete," said Snyder, adding that the church also now affirms salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead of what (critics maintain) has historically been a works-based salvation.
James Walker, the Watchman Fellowship's Texas director, has been closely following the activities of the church. He said evangelicals should be aware of the possibility that the doctrinal changes may be similar to the Temple Endowment ceremony changes in the Mormon church last year. These did not represent any real move toward orthodoxy, but they made the Mormons less offensive to some Christians. (See p. 6 in the Summer 1990 Christian Research Journal.)
Walker points out that salvation by works was clearly taught in the January-February 1990 issue of Good News. He adds that although the church claims that the previously mentioned article is "obsolete," no notice of that fact (or of other changes) was ever given to the church at large.
In other news affecting the WCG, although membership is at an all-time high, there are indications that the church is not doing well financially. Good News magazine was dropped from publication as of January 1991. And circulation of the church's Plain Truth magazine has dipped from over 7 million at its height to 2.3 million by the end of last summer, according to the January 1991 issue of the Ambassador Report. Recently the magazine was phased out in areas of the Middle East, West Africa, and other regions, the Report continued. (The Ambassador Report [P.O. Box 60068, Pasadena, CA 91106] is a critical periodical published by former members of the WCG.)
The church's 70-acre unaccredited Ambassador College in Pasadena held its fortieth and final commencement ceremony in May 1990. Although Snyder denied that the campus -- which also houses the church's headquarters -- was officially "for sale," he said that the church would consider any offers that came its way.
Construction at the church's remaining Ambassador College campus in Big Sandy, Texas has been lagging behind. The church hoped to make the Texas school an accredited four-year college, but due to state law, accreditation cannot come before June 1992, according to the Ambassador Report. Many are speculating that the church's headquarters will also be moved to Texas in the near future.
The WCG's media empire is also crumbling. The church's glitzy television program, "The World Tomorrow," has shrunk from 350 stations in 1988 to only 113 this past year, according to the January 1991 Ambassador Report. And, according to the June 18, 1990 Worldwide News, the church discontinued its "World Tomorrow" radio broadcasts and eliminated the toll-free telephone number on its telecasts.
[*] Joseph Hopkins, The Armstrong Empire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 181.
Authority Abuses Alleged at the Set Free Christian Center
Some pastors and cult watchers have expressed growing concern over alleged Scripture twisting and authority abuses at the Set Free Christian Center based in Anaheim, California.
Officials at Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowships of Costa Mesa, California -- which is the ministry that oversees the more than 380 Calvary Chapels (affiliated with Pastor Chuck Smith) worldwide -- have transcribed testimonies from former Set Free members. They intended to call Set Free Pastor Phil Aguilar to account for the alleged abuses at the church -- if this action proved to be warranted. Calvary's office, led by Pastor Oden Fong, has produced a 318-page report containing the testimonies of 28 people -- most of them former Set Free members -- that allege serious behavior problems at the church and near-dictatorial rule by Aguilar.
At the same time, Set Free, which claims 4,000 attendees at its Sunday morning worship services, has become increasingly thrust into the public eye due to the close ties pastor Aguilar has forged with the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and certain political figures in the Southern California area.
Known as "the biker church," Set Free takes in former gang members, prostitutes, drug addicts, the homeless, and others -- and claims to help set them free from their old lives of bondage. They maintain ranches in Texas, Illinois, and California, and they own a number of group (communal living) homes in the Anaheim area, some of which were paid for with direct gifts from TBN.
Calvary Fellowships has stopped its investigation, but the transcripts, tape recorded testimonies, and other data were recently turned over to the Christian Research Institute. Calvary has also given a four-page analysis of the testimonies to CRI that indicates potential problems with "accountability and authority," living conditions at both the homes and the ranches, alleged intimidation of members by Aguilar, and Set Free's biblical doctrine. Prior to the documents being turned over, CRI had begun its own preliminary inquiry due to complaints swirling around about the sect. (CRI has not yet determined, however, whether it will launch a full-scale investigation of the group.)
Additionally, Westmont College Sociology Professor/cult expert Ronald Enroth has been investigating Set Free in recent months and has become increasingly concerned about the alleged authority abuses.
Aguilar did not return several phone calls pertaining to this story. But Eli Hernandez, a spokesman for Set Free ministries, says the ministry denies all charges of authority abuses leveled against the church, and they deny all allegations presented to Set Free in the four-page list compiled by Calvary Fellowships.
Calvary's list, which had been sent to Aguilar for his comments, alleges that
- "Aguilar is not accountable to anyone....[He] can remove anyone from a leadership position anytime he chooses."
- "[Aguilar] is the mediator between them [Set Free members] and God....If anyone questions Phil's decisions in any way they are considered 'rebellious' and those who question Phil are shunned by Phil and everyone else at Set Free."
- Members are told to "move out of their own homes, give up their cars and all their possessions and move into the Set Free homes"...Aguilar "gets them to quit their jobs"...and members "need to get 'permission' from Phil to go anywhere, to do anything and to visit with friends or family." Aguilar separates "husbands and wives who are having [marital] problems." "He has each of them live in a different home and tells them they have to stay separated until 'God tells Phil that they can come back together.'" (But many of the separations have ended in divorce, the testimonies allege.)
- "Phil refers to those who leave Set Free, or who move out of the homes as 'backslidden heathen.'" And he denounces them by name from the pulpit.
- "Phil tells people who they can and cannot date....Most marriages at Set Free are arranged by Phil....Women need Phil's permission to use birth control."
- Phil "often misinterprets and takes Scripture out of context" and he "tells the congregation that he is the only one who knows Scripture and they don't."
Set Free members increasingly have been appearing on TBN, manning the phones, and in recent days Aguilar has been named to the board of the TBN-linked National Minority Television Network (along with TBN President Paul Crouch, Crouch's assistant Jane Duff, and TBN's Jim McClellan).
Set Free has made for some colorful copy in the Southern California area. Members are often dressed in black as they roar along the freeways in motorcycle processions. They produce Christian rock videos, and during worship services will have an extensive time of mouthing Christian "rap" lyrics (not praise worship songs familiar to other charismatic fellowships) while members dance on a large stage in a converted warehouse.
Truthfulness of TBN's "China Cry" Movie Called into Question
Critics are charging that the heroine in the $7 million film China Cry, produced by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, bears little resemblance to the true-life figure.
That individual -- San Jose, California evangelist Nora Lam, whose dramatic escape from Communist China is portrayed in the movie -- is now under fire for ethical and financial problems.
Los Angeles Christian talk show host John Stewart has noted that little in the film can be documented, including Lam's alleged escape from a firing squad and a miraculous event in which God supposedly kept her pregnant for nearly a year to enable her to flee to Hong Kong before giving birth. Stewart also investigated other aspects of Lam's life and has publicly dubbed the film as "China Lie."
Despite the hubbub, the film, which is TBN's first attempt at producing a major motion picture, has received generous reviews from both Christian and secular film critics. It opened in 135 theaters nationally in November, and is scheduled to be in many more theaters within the year.
But the controversy is hurting TBN's chances of earning its investment money back as some Christian groups are raising questions about the film and not endorsing it due to controversy surrounding Lam's ministry and character -- controversy which has apparently existed in different quarters of the church for some time.
According to the January 14, 1991 Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals turned down Lam's ministry application for membership in 1989, and in 1977 the Assemblies of God warned its ministers that "Nora Lam is not endorsed" by its Division of Foreign Missions and is not recommended as a speaker at church services.
The film is advertised as a love story since it shows how young Nora Lam was pitted against her husband, and how she engineered their escape into Hong Kong. The story ends with Lam and her husband being reunited. But according to testimony given in the December 1, 1990 San Jose Mercury News, once in Hong Kong, Lam divorced her husband (allegedly due to physical abuse) and moved to America with her second husband, S. K. Sung -- who was still married to someone else.
The Rev. Paul Kauffman, Lam's pastor in Hong Kong at the time, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News (December 1, 1990) as saying that he never advised Lam to divorce her husband, and that "she ran away with an elder in my congregation," who left his wife behind.
Once in America, Lam built a ministry that takes in an estimated $2.5 million per year. And many critics have surfaced alleging that Lam has been involved in a pattern of fund-raising improprieties (e.g., pressuring individuals for money that was not really needed, and was not used for the cause represented. See Christianity Today, January 14, 1991).
Lam has been on TBN with founders Paul and Jan Crouch lambasting her critics. And Lam's son, Joseph, has called her critics "dart-throwers" who are "motivated by jealousy and vendettas," according to published reports. But Lam and her staff have not responded to specific allegations made by Stewart and others interviewed by the media.
End of document, CRJ0090A.TXT (original CRI file name),
release A, April 30, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
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