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Founded in 1934 by Herbert W. Armstrong as a religious broadcasting radio ministry named Radio Church of God, the Worldwide Church of God had a significant, and often controversial, influence on 20th-century religious broadcasting and publishing in the United States and Europe, especially in the field of interpreting biblical end-time prophecies. Within a few years after Armstrong's death in 1986, the succeeding church administration modified the denomination's doctrines and teachings to be compatible with mainstream evangelical Christianity, while many members and ministers left and formed other churches that conformed to many, but not all, of Armstrong's teachings. In 2009, the church adopted its current name.
The Radio Church of God began with Herbert W. Armstrong, who in 1931 was ordained by the Oregon Conference of the Church of God (Seventh-Day), an Adventist group, and began serving a congregation in Eugene, Oregon. On January 7, 1934, Armstrong began hosting a broadcast on a local 100-watt radio station KORE in Eugene. It was essentially a condensed church service on the air, with hymn singing featured along with Armstrong's message, and was the launching point for what would become the Radio Church of God. In 1933, the Church of God (Seventh-Day) split. Armstrong, who sided with the faction centered in Salem, West Virginia, fell out with the local congregation over various doctrinal issues, especially his espousal of British Israelism.
Although his views were rejected by the local congregation, he gained a growing following of his own, chiefly through his World Tomorrow broadcasts and the Plain Truth magazine. Armstrong moved to Pasadena, California. To facilitate the work of the growing church, he incorporated it on March 3, 1946, as the Radio Church of God. In 1947, Ambassador College was founded in Pasadena by the church, and the campus served as the church's headquarters.
The broadcast of The World Tomorrow went into Europe on Radio Luxembourg on January 7, 1953. In 1956, Armstrong published the booklet 1975 in Prophecy!, which predicted an upcoming nuclear war and subsequent enslavement of mankind, leading to the return of Jesus Christ. He explained that the book was written to contrast the spiritual condition of the world to the modern inventions that scientists were promising for the year 1975.
In 1971 Armstrong criticized teachings that Christ would return in 1975 and that the church should flee to a "place of safety" in 1972, as no man knew the time of Christ's return (Matthew 24:36 and 25:13). Armstrong wrote that 1975 would be the least possible year for Christ's return.
Because of his strong emphasis on these prophetic dates, the church grew quickly in the late 1960s and, on January 5, 1968, was renamed the Worldwide Church of God.
Armstrong's son, Garner Ted Armstrong, who had been given the responsibility to host the radio and later the television version of The World Tomorrow, was formally disfellowshipped by his father in 1972. While church members were told at the time that the reason was Ted Armstrong's opposition to some of his father's teachings, Ted Armstrong later admitted that the actual reason was his relationships with many women. Armstrong, who resumed the broadcasting duties of The World Tomorrow program, did not reconcile with Ted before his death.
Armstrong's church was both authoritarian and totalitarian in its treatment of the membership. To maintain member loyalty, Armstrong's ministers indoctrinated them that they had been "called" by God into the only true Christian church on Earth and that all other Christian churches were Satanic counterfeits. If a called member were to question church doctrines, the member would be in peril of losing salvation and being cast into the lake of fire on Judgment Day. Further, ministers could arbitrarily disfellowship suspect members for any type of disloyalty. Disfellowshipping was openly announced in Sabbath services on a weekly basis but the reasons were rarely given. Still the church grew on a worldwide scale.
Armstrong taught a strict doctrine of tithing to the members. Ten percent of a member's gross income was to be given to the church, and yet another ten percent was to be saved for traveling to one of the church's annual feast days, the Feast of Tabernacles. Every third year, members were commanded to give a third tithe, slated to care for the "widows and orphans" of the church. Finally, the church observed seven high holy days throughout the year, on which members were asked to give offerings while baskets were passed. Every month Herbert Armstrong would mail out a co-worker letter to millions of non-members, as well as his members, in which he would claim that the church was on the verge of financial collapse. In reality, the church headquarters in Pasadena rested on prime real estate and had been modestly estimated to value $300,000,000. Armstrong's mansion was on Orange Grove Boulevard, on the route of the annual Rose Parade. The church possessed several such mansions in that area, known as Millionaire's Row, and had built other large facilities on the thirty-acre property, leading up to the building of a spectacular concert hall dubbed Ambassador Auditorium.
Armstrong spared no expense in the building of his Auditorium. External walls were made of emerald onyx. The walls in the outer lobby were a rare pink onyx, and expensive chandeliers, including two that had been owned by the Shah of Iran, hung from the gilt ceilings. In the concert hall, the walls were decorated in rosewood, so delicate that visitors were forbidden to take flash photographs.
In 1970, the first of many groups to splinter from the Worldwide Church of God were founded. Carl O'Beirn of Cleveland, Ohio, led the group that may have been the first to leave, the Church of God (O'Beirn). Others followed that year, including John Kerley's Top of the Line Ministry in 1978; the Restoration Church of God; the Church of God (Boise City) in Boise City, Oklahoma; Marvin Faulhaber's Sabbatarian, a group also known as Church of God (Sabbatarian); and the Fountain of Life Fellowship of James and Virginia Porter. These factions survived well past Herbert Armstrong's death in 1986, most retaining the name Church of God because Armstrong had pointed out that this is the name God calls his true church in the Bible.
When the fall of 1972 came and the time to flee to a place of safety did not occur, there was yet another exodus of members. However, church leaders created a red herring to divert members from believing the prophecy had failed. They blamed the members themselves for not being faithful enough; then they proclaimed a new gospel—that Armstrong was to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation and kingdom on Earth, as commissioned in the last chapter of Matthew, before Jesus would return. Armstrong set about to do this with the help of some public relations aides and King Leopold of Belgium. Armstrong did end up meeting with many world leaders to whom he would present expensive gifts, then preach to them that there were "two ways"—one the way of giving and the other the way of getting. He preached this message until his death.
During the sixties "Armstrong had sought to put into stronger action what he later termed God’s way of give". To Armstrong and his students, this was generally said to include "the way of character, generosity, cultural enrichment, true education: of beautifying the environment and caring for fellow man." He began undertaking humanitarian projects in underprivileged locales around the world, which sparked the creation of the church-run Ambassador International Cultural Foundation (AICF) in 1975. The Foundation’s efforts reached into several countries, providing staffing and funds to fight illiteracy, to create schools for the disabled, to set up mobile schools, and to conduct several archaeological digs at significant biblical sites. The church auditorium hosted, at highly subsidized ticket prices, hundreds of performances by noted artists such as Luciano Pavarotti, Vladimir Horowitz, Bing Crosby, Marcel Marceau, and Bob Hope. Nevertheless, ticket sales could still not pay for the appearances of world-renowned performers, so Armstrong used church tithe money to subsidize these performances without informing his congregation of how "God's holy tithe" was being spent.
Quest was a periodical that was published monthly by AICF from July 1977 to September 1981. Originally published under the title Human Potential, the project was directed by Stanley Rader as a secular outreach of the church-funded AICF. Quest publishers hired a professional staff unrelated to the church to create a high-quality, glossy publication devoted to the humanities, travel, and the arts. The original name and design of Human Potential were conceived in the aftermath of Armstrong's poorly received 1975 in Prophecy!, a publication which caused accusations of false prophecy to spread like wildfire. (The use of the year 1975 was defended by church ministers as a device to explain Biblical prophecy, by contrasting it with the scientific world's declaration of 1975 as the year of technological "Utopia".)
The AICF had become secular in its approach and thinking. Thus, the church began to cut back on its funding. Eventually, because the AICF was perceived to have strayed from its original goals, it was discontinued by Armstrong and its assets were sold to other interests.
In 1972, many members were disappointed that the events predicted by Herbert Armstrong did not come to pass. Most were unaware that Herbert Armstrong had been predicting the end of the world on the radio as far back as World War II, when he had proclaimed Hitler and Mussolini the Beast and False Prophet of the Book of Revelation. After the war ended, Armstrong attended a meeting in San Francisco in which a proposal was made to create the United Nations. He had also read a quote from Winston Churchill proposing the creation of a United States of Europe. This was a springboard for a new set of prophecies in which the European Union would rise up to become the Beast Power. While the European Union was an idea in the making, the nations of Europe were far from united, as the union itself was still another 20 years in the future. Because church literature such as The Wonderful World Tomorrow, 1975 in Prophecy!, and many others had attempted to pinpoint the date of Christ's return, members continued to wait anxiously for the Second Coming. Armstrong cleverly never predicted a date in his sermons, but this did not prevent his evangelists (such as Gerald Waterhouse) from presenting detailed, step-by-step accounts of the Second Coming in their sermons, which included Armstrong himself as one of two witnesses of the Book of Revelation.
Herbert Armstrong began to speak openly and critically of his son. The senior Armstrong voiced disapproval of Garner Ted's practice of attributing specific dates to end-time prophecies. Garner Ted also spoke of greatly expanding the church's media ministry on the model of the Church of Christ, Scientist with its widely read Christian Science Monitor. Herbert W. Armstrong vehemently disagreed.
In a report in the May 15, 1972, edition of Time magazine, Herbert Armstrong was reported to have said that Garner Ted was "in the bonds of Satan."  The elder Armstrong did not elaborate, but it was speculated that Herbert was alluding to Garner Ted's alleged problems with gambling and adultery with Ambassador College co-eds, and to serious doctrinal differences. Garner Ted Armstrong was soon relieved of his star role within the church.
Garner Ted led a secret coup to gain control of the Church and displace his Father. But it was Garner Ted who was to be removed. While Garner Ted Armstrong was being removed, Stanley Rader was orchestrating the church's involvement in a number of corporations which Rader and Herbert W. Armstrong established. Critics saw Rader's moves as an attempt to seize control of the church. Rader characterized his involvement as that of an advisor and claimed that his advice was opening doors for Armstrong that a strict theological role would not have allowed for. Herbert Armstrong claimed that he did not approve of the establishment of the AICF, which Rader set up ostensibly to give the elder Armstrong a role as the "Ambassador for World Peace without portfolio".
As the church was experiencing internal crises, its external, public face was also crumbling. Church followers had anticipated the removal of the church faithful to Petra, Jordan, to await the prophesied apocalypse.
Despite the scandals of 1972, the church continued to grow in the 1970s, with Herbert Armstrong still at the helm. In 1975, Armstrong baptized Stanley Rader, who until then had been a practitioner of Judaism despite his association with the church.
After being left a widower by the death of his wife, Loma, eleven years earlier, Armstrong married Ramona Martin, a woman nearly fifty years younger, in 1977 and moved to Tucson, Arizona while recovering from a heart attack. While Armstrong recuperated in his home in Arizona, he administered and guided church affairs through Stanley Rader and the church administration. The church continued to be headquartered in Pasadena.
With Garner Ted Armstrong resuming his role within the church, the rivalry between the younger Armstrong and Stanley Rader intensified. As the accusations of Garner Ted's past resurfaced, Herbert W. Armstrong started giving more responsibilities to Stanley Rader. This action was infuriating to the younger Armstrong, who thought it his birthright to take over as the leader of the Church. The adultery problems that reportedly had previously driven Garner Ted from the church allegedly continued unabated. In 1978, after a failed attempt to seize control of the Church from the Elder Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong was disfellowshipped a final time. Garner Ted moved to Tyler, Texas, and there founded a splinter group, the Church of God International. He later spearheaded a coalition of six ex-ministers who brought accusations of misappropriation of funds directed against Herbert W. Armstrong and Stanley Rader to the Attorney General of California. Contending that Herbert W. Armstrong and Stanley Rader were siphoning millions of dollars for their personal indulgences, the Attorney General's office seized the Pasadena Campus. This action was later determined to have been illegal.
Herbert Armstrong's daughter, Dorothy Matson, contacted her brother Ted prior to his final disfellowshipping and made a startling confession to him. She confessed that her father had molested her for ten years of her childhood until she finally was able to leave home. This infuriated Ted who met with his father to confront him. In a rage he shouted, "I could destroy you with this information!" This was how Armstrong described Ted being in the "bonds of Satan," "Just as Lucifer rebelled against God during his rebellion, so Ted has threatened me by rising up and saying, 'I could destroy you father.'" He conveniently left out why Ted could have destroyed him. This led to Ted's ousting. Distraught, Ted contacted fellow minister David Robinson who authored a book entitled Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web, which included the story of Dorothy's molestation. Robinson met with Armstrong in his Tucson home and told him his book included the story of the incest. Armstrong admitted to Robinson that the story was indeed true. When Herbert's wife Ramona found out she immediately divorced him. Armstrong was cross-examined in court about the incest, but he pled the fifth, refusing to incriminate himself.
Garner Ted Armstrong blamed Stanley Rader for his two-time ousting from his father's church. Garner Ted and other former and discontented members of the Worldwide Church of God prompted the State of California to investigate charges of malfeasance by Rader and Herbert W. Armstrong. In 1979, California Attorney General George Deukmejian placed the church campus in Pasadena into financial receivership for a half year. The State of California went through the Church's records.
The matter gained the attention of Mike Wallace who investigated the church in a report for 60 Minutes. Wallace alleged that there had been lavish secret expenditures, conflict of interest insider deals, posh homes and lifestyles in the higher ranks, and the heavy involvement of Stanley Rader in financial manipulation. No legal charges were leveled against Herbert W. Armstrong, Stanley Rader, or the Worldwide Church of God. Wallace invited Rader to appear on 60 Minutes on April 15, 1979. Wallace showed Rader a secret tape recording in which Herbert Armstrong was purported to have alleged that Rader was attempting to take over the church after Armstrong's death, reasoning that the donated tithe money might be quite a "magnet" to some evangelists. Rader abruptly ended the interview. This tape was later alleged to have been made about someone else, and illegally taped by one of the 6 embittered ex-members who had gone to the State of California with the accusations.
In the meantime, Herbert W. Armstrong switched the Worldwide Church of God Inc. corporations to "Corporate Sole" status, making him the sole officer and responsible party for the affairs of the corporations.
In referring to the investigation of the California Attorney General, Rader wrote Against the Gates of Hell: The Threat to Religious Freedom in America in 1980, in which he contended that his fight with the Attorney General was solely about the government's circumventing religious freedoms rather than about abuse of public trust or fraudulent misappropriation of tithe funds.
The California Second Court of Appeals overturned the decision on procedural grounds and added as dicta, "We are of the opinion that the underlying action [i.e., the state-imposed receivership] and its attendant provisional remedy of receivership were from the inception constitutionally infirm and predestined to failure."
Herbert W. Armstrong, Stanley Rader, and the Worldwide Church of God later received full vindication.
Stanley Rader left his positions within the church in 1981. While remaining a member, he left the public spotlight as an attorney, and retired.
On January 16, 1986, Herbert Armstrong died in Pasadena, California. Shortly before his death, on January 7, 1986, Armstrong appointed Joseph W. Tkach Sr. "... succeeding me as pastor general, in the difficult times ahead".
As early as 1988, Joseph W. Tkach Sr. began to make doctrinal changes. Doctrinal revisions were made quietly and slowly at first, but then openly and radically in January 1995. They were presented as new understandings of Christmas and Easter, Babylon and the harlot, British Israelism, Saturday Sabbath, and other doctrines.
In general, Tkach Sr. directed the church theology towards mainstream evangelical Christian belief. This caused much disillusionment among the membership and another rise of splinter groups. All these changes, the church admits, have organizationally brought about "catastrophic results," though they believe that it is spiritually the best thing that ever happened to them. During the tenure of Joseph Tkach Sr., the church's membership declined by about 50 percent. His son, Joseph Tkach Jr., succeeded him after his death in 1995.
Eventually all of Herbert Armstrong's writings were withdrawn from print by the Worldwide Church of God. In the 2004 video production Called To Be Free, Greg Albrecht, former dean of WCG's Ambassador College, declared Herbert Armstrong to be both a false prophet and a heretic.
In 2007 the Worldwide Church of God decided to allow women to serve as pastors and elders. This decision was reached after several years of study. Debby Bailey became the first female elder in the Worldwide Church of God in 2007.
After Armstrong's death, the church's new leadership began a process of theological revision. The church now claims to be considered within the evangelical mainstream as shown by its acceptance into the National Association of Evangelicals. Its doctrinal summary highlights mainstream Protestant beliefs such as the Trinity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that faith in him is the only way to receive salvation, and that the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God.
Until Armstrong's death, the Worldwide Church of God adhered to its founder's teachings. The most notable feature was Armstrong's version of British Israelism, which was based on reading the account of Jacob blessing his sons (Genesis 49) as end-time prophecy. Armstrong saw in it a description of national characteristics of contemporary descendants of Jacob, and deduced that the United States, the British Commonwealth and several countries situated in northwestern Europe were actually the Lost Tribes of Israel. Armstrong held that these countries played a central role in the end times that were about to begin.
Armstrong rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, regarding it as a pagan concept absorbed into mainstream Christianity. Armstrong contended that God was not a closed Trinity but was instead building a family through the Holy Spirit, which Armstrong considered to be God's powerful unifying essence guiding and bringing to remembrance those things which Christ taught. Armstrong contended that the Spirit is not a distinct personality like the Father and the Son. Armstrong also taught that members of the church would actually become members of the God family themselves after the resurrection. Armstrong rejected as unbiblical the traditional Christian views of heaven, hell, eternal punishment and salvation.
The church strictly observed the Saturday Sabbath, annual festivals described in the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus, and strongly advocated the clean meats of Leviticus 11. Members were encouraged to tithe and to follow a dress code during services. They were discouraged from marrying outside the church. In fact, these practices are still observed in several of the Church's remaining branches today. Herbert W. Armstrong summarized his teachings in his book Mystery of the Ages, published shortly before his death. This book was the centerpiece of a titanic struggle between the Philadelphia Church of God and the remnant of the Worldwide Church of God under Joseph Tkach Jr. The battle went as far as the United States Supreme Court. At that point, however, the leaders of the WCG decided to drop the case and give over not only Mystery of the Ages, but also several other works originally written by Armstrong.
Under Armstrong's leadership, the Worldwide Church of God was accused of being a cult with unorthodox and, to most Christians, heretical teachings. Critics also contended that the WCG did not proclaim salvation by grace through faith alone, but rather required works as part of salvation. The late Walter Martin, in his classic The Kingdom of the Cults, devoted 34 pages to the group, claiming that Armstrong borrowed freely from Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon doctrines. Armstrong contended that all Church doctrine could be proved simply and effectively through the Bible, and that one did not need to "accept on faith" any of the Worldwide Church of God's doctrinal beliefs.
Grace Communion International has a hierarchical polity. The ecclesiastical policies are determined by the Advisory Council of Elders. Members of the Advisory Council are appointed by the President. The President, who also holds the title of Pastor General, is chief executive and ecclesiastical officer of the denomination. A Doctrinal Advisory Team may report to the Advisory Council on the church's official doctrinal statements, epistemology, or apologetics. The President may pocket veto doctrinal positions he determines to be heretical. However, the President is also a member of the Doctrinal Advisory Team, and so he is aware of and involved in the activities of that committee. Historically, Presidents, as chairmen of the board of directors, have appointed their own successor. This and the President's power to appoint and remove members of the Advisory Council have remained areas of concern even among those who applaud the church's doctrinal changes.
The Church maintains national offices and satellite offices in multiple countries. Pastor General Joseph Tkach, Jr. periodically travels worldwide in personal appearance campaigns to congregations in diverse intercontinental areas, such as Great Britain, Africa, and the Philippines. However, membership and tithe income originate primarily from the eastern United States.
In the United States, denominational contact with local assemblies or local church home small group meetings, i.e., cell churches, is facilitated by district superintendents, each of which is responsible for a large number of churches in a geographical region (such as Florida or the Northeast) or in a specialized language group (such as Spanish-speaking congregations).
Local churches are led by a senior pastor, pastoral leadership team (with one person designated as a congregational pastoral leader), each of which is supervised by a district pastoral leader. Some senior pastors are responsible for a single local church, but many are responsible for working in two or more churches. Salary compensation for the paid local church pastor, if available, is determined by the local church.
Most local church groups retain the long-standing traditional policy of meeting in leased or rented facilities for meetings or services. The trend since 2000, however, has been to adopt a local church setting blending into the local milieu with headquarters retaining administrative oversight functions. As of 2005, the church established a new computer system of financial checks and balances for church budgets at the local level. Also, GCI now mandates a local Advisory Council, which includes a number of volunteer ministry leaders (some of whom are also called deacons), and often additional elders or assistant pastors.
The early Worldwide Church of God used a three-tithe system, under which members were expected to give a tithe or ten percent "of their increase," usually interpreted as a family's income.
In contrast to many other churches' religious services, the practice of WCG was not to pass around offering plates during weekly church services but only during holy day church services (seven days each year). These funds were considered "freewill offerings" and regarded as entirely separate from regular tithes. The church also gathered funds in the form of donations from "co-workers," those who read the church's free literature or watched the weekly TV show but did not actually attend services.
Under Joseph W. Tkach Sr., the mandatory nature of the church's three-tithe system was abolished, and it was suggested that tithes could be calculated on net, rather than gross, income. Its income has plummeted. Its leaders sold much of the property, including the festival sites used by church brethren and campsites built for teenagers. They shut down the college campuses which Herbert Armstrong raised up for the work and for young people, and sold the airplane he used to visit the brethren and world leaders. They discontinued all the books, booklets and magazines published by Armstrong. Afterwards, church income declined precipitously (membership also dropped at the same time). Today the GCI headquarters has downsized for financial survival. Facing possible bankruptcy, the church liquidated its high maintenance real estate properties, such as Ambassador College, and other auctionable inventory to pay for current headquarters expenditures.
To further economize, the church sold its properties in Pasadena and purchased an office building in Glendora, California. Formerly, the church's membership—meeting in rented halls on Saturdays such as public school buildings, dance halls, hotels and other venues—sent all tithe donations directly to the headquarters. Under the new financial reporting regime, local churches are permitted to use some funds for local purposes, such as constructing local church buildings for use by the congregations. As of 2007, 85 percent or more of all congregational donations stay in the local area, with 15 percent going to the church's headquarters in Glendora for ministerial training and support, legal services, and denominational administration.
From the 1970s through to the 1990s several of the Sabbatarian Churches of God that adhered to some of Armstrong's teachings separated from WCG. Due to the significant doctrinal changes which occurred in WCG throughout the 1990s, the largest percentage of ministers and members left WCG during this decade. This resulted in the formation of many denominations. There is significant overlap in their teachings with those of Herbert W. Armstrong. Most claim to teach "all" of the truths restored through Herbert W. Armstrong, most notably the Philadelphia Church of God (1989). The "PCG" purchased the copyright to several of the books and booklets of Herbert W. Armstrong and systematically changed both the wording, content and meaning of what Armstrong wrote. They maintain that Armstrong was right and that they are preaching and teaching the very same teachings and are in fact a continuation of the parent WCG.
Global Church of God, the Living Church of God (1993, 1998), United Church of God (1995), and the Restored Church of God (1998). The United Church of God (UCG) is the largest of these denominations.
Most teach that they are the continuation of the WCG and many have also rewritten Armstrong's books and booklets. Some have altered them to fit the splinter church's particular church doctrines.