Church struggles with changes in its mission, financial woes

Pasadena Star News, Jan. 26, 2003

PASADENA — Mainstream religious people are usually more known for their insistence that they’ve found the truth rather than a willingness to admit their beliefs have been mistaken.

But humility has been a hallmark of Worldwide Church of God leaders since they disowned the very non-mainstream beliefs of their founder, Herbert W. Armstrong.

The drastic change in beliefs came to a head in 1995, and demonstrated that ideas do indeed have consequences. The changes resulted in a mass exodus among the Armstrong faithful, a huge drop in church revenue, a drastic decline in church programs and the liquidation of many of Armstrong’s lavish possessions.

Now the church is trying to develop its 50-acre Ambassador College campus on Orange Grove Boulevard and Green Street as about 1,500 residential units. Church leaders then hope to sell the campus, which is largely underutilized but serves as their headquarters, to secure pensions for their pastors and to continue their ministry elsewhere.

Armstrong, now deceased, had the kind of theological beliefs that earned him 34 pages in the evangelical Christian book, “

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The former traveling salesman founded the church in 1933. It grew to about 160,000 members through the influence of its vast media machine, said Bernard Schnippert, the church’s director of finance and planning. The Plain Truth magazine went to 8 million subscribers in its heyday, and The World Tomorrow radio and television broadcasts were heard nationwide.

The media were tools for growth and for sharing Armstrong’s unique blend of beliefs, which Worldwide Church of God Controller Ronald Kelly said contributed to creating a fearful and cultic atmosphere. Kelly has been a member of the church since he came to Ambassador College as a student in 1956.

Armstrong believed, for instance, that Jesus Christ will return to Earth to assume the throne of England, where he’ll reign in peace and prosperity forever.

He also preached that members earned salvation through their commitment to the Old Testament law. Christ may have died for the sins of the world, he taught, but acceptance of his death wasn’t enough. The believer must also obey Christ.

This differed from orthodox Christian beliefs, which say that a person can’t earn salvation that’s given freely as a result of God’s grace.

Obedience was Armstrong’s key to qualify for God’s grace, and in the former Worldwide Church of God parlance that meant following the rules.

As with Orthodox Jews, members didn’t eat “unclean’ things such as pork and shrimp. They observed all the Jewish festivals in the Old Testament and celebrated the Sabbath on Saturdays. Members were discouraged from voting, serving in the military, marrying after a divorce, relying on doctors, using cosmetics, or observing Christmas, Easter or birthdays.

The emphasis on obedience was apparent in some of the headlines from the church’s newsletter.

“HOW YOU DRESS FOR CHURCH Could it keep you out of the KINGDOM?’

“OUR LIGHT IS SHINING! and not the cosmetics on our faces.’

“It created an exclusivistic culture we do these things and others who don’t do these things were not Christians,’ Kelly said.

Tithing was mandatory: 10 percent of a member’s income had to be given directly to the church, 10 percent to celebrate festivals and another 10 percent for supporting needy members.

“It created a culture of one and only. It caused us to be separated from the mainstream Christian groups,’ Kelly said. “We didn’t associate.’

It also enabled a lavish lifestyle for Armstrong, who traveled the world meeting with politicians and lived luxuriously in a mansion on the Pasadena campus.

The church’s auction of some of Armstrong’s personal possessions in 2000 included a Chippendale dining room suite with St. Louis crystal, Louis XVI giltwood armchairs, Meissen urns, a pair of Steinway grand pianos and a silver model of the Mayflower.

Armstrong philosophized that appreciating the arts would build character, Schnippert said at the time of the auction.

Thinking about the church’s past practices causes him some emotional difficulty now, Schnippert said.

“Being exclusivistic and judgmental are not virtues, and it’s painful to see yourself embracing values that aren’t Christian ideals,’ Schnippert said. “There’s pain and embarrassment in that.’

Armstrong died in 1986, and the church’s leaders decided it was time to discuss and evaluate some of their beliefs, Kelly said.

An early change was a cosmetic one. In 1988, the church leaders announced that it was no longer a sin to wear makeup.

“There was dancing in the street when we dropped makeup,’ Schnippert said.

“I wish I would’ve owned stock in Revlon at that time,’ Kelly quipped.

Other changes, like bringing the doctrine of the Trinity in line with mainstream Christianity, caused more division, Schnippert said. The final straw came in the last weeks of 1994, Schnippert said, when Joseph Tkach Sr., president of the church, gave sermons on obedience to the Old Testament law versus accepting God’s grace.

The new church position emphasized God’s grace, and Armstrong’s followers were having none of it.

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said he’s never seen a church make such dramatic and sweeping changes in theology. Typically, people on the periphery of non-mainstream religions become converts, he said. In this case, it was the leadership.

The change had drastic effects on churches across the country and internationally, as members took sides in the battles of belief.

“Every congregation was decimated by the fallout,’ Kelly said.

Multiple church splits occurred and now membership in the Worldwide Church of God has dropped to about 67,000. U.S.- based income fell from $170 million before the split to $25 million this year, Schnippert said.

The Worldwide Church of God sued one of the spinoff churches, the Philadelphia Church of God, over the right to publish Armstrong’s magnum opus, “Mystery of the Ages.’ The Worldwide Church of God owns the rights to the book and won the case.

A settlement is imminent in a counter-lawsuit between the groups regarding the copyright owned by the Worldwide Church of God on 18 other Armstrong works, Schnippert said.

Members of the Philadelphia Church of God declined to comment for this article. Members of other churches that follow Armstrong’s teachings did not return calls for comment.

Despite the fact that changing its beliefs has hurt the Worldwide Church of God’s programs and finances, and caused personal pain, the church is in a good place, Schnippert said. And while they were once hyper-judgmental, church leaders will say it’s hard to find a more tolerant group now, he said.

Other religious groups and individuals could benefit from examining their beliefs, too, he said.

“To stake out your beliefs and decide they’ll never change is a spiritually stunting proposition,’ he said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 27, 2003.
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