A Story of Apostasy and Return

When I left the Pasadena, California-based Worldwide Church of God (WCG) in early 2000, barely a year prior to my return to the fold of the Catholic Church, Catholicism wasn’t even an option on my “OK, what next?” list. I’d left Catholicism almost thirty years prior in order to follow the WCG’s nearly 70-year-old founder, an ad-man-turned-televangelist named Herbert Armstrong.

The Radio “Apostle”

At that time Herbert and son Garner Ted Armstrong produced a 30-minute radio program called The World Tomorrow in which the younger Armstrong repeatedly painted a gripping picture of a world coming apart at the seams. The only solution, Garner Ted insisted, was the immanent return of Jesus Christ to set up a literal 1,000-year theocracy on the earth.

For my part I had practiced Catholicism from boyhood, but by age 18 the combination of the post-Vatican II confusion that reigned among Catholic youth in the late 1960s, and Garner Ted’s incessant apocalyptic drumbeat on the radio led me to conclude (erroneously) that the Armstrongs and not the Catholic Church, could provide me with the sure answers I sought in attempting to grapple with the “big questions” of life. Such is the appeal of cults and aberrant sects to youth, even today.

 

Armstrong was one of a seemingly endless list of self-appointed messengers of God who believed he had been called to “restore lost truths” to a reprobate world deceived by a “false” Christianity. A high-school dropout, Herbert Armstrong founded his movement in the 1930s, having convinced himself that God had called him to begin a new movement based on a growing list of newly-discovered “truths,” among them, the biblically correct day of worship for Christians today (Saturday), and the “truth” about the prophetic identities of the United States and England. Armstrong was a zealous advocate for the myth known as Anglo- or British Israelism, which said that the ancient Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh somehow survived assimilations, massacres, deportations and dispersions to become the modern-day English and American peoples. In practical terms this meant that wherever the Old Testament prophets spoke about Israel in the “latter days,” they were actually prophesying about modern-day America and Britain.

Once I had convinced myself that Armstrong and his sect, the Worldwide Church of God (founded in the 1930s as the Radio Church of God) had cornered the market on “truth,” it was very easy for me to accept Armstrong’s claim to be “God’s Apostle for the End-Time Age,” a self-described successor to the New Testament Apostle St. Paul. Tens of thousands of others, many of them lapsed Catholics, chose to follow Armstrong in the 1970s and ‘80s. This trend might have continued into the 1990s had Armstrong not died in 1986. Advanced in age, Armstrong made known his intention to hand control of the sect over to a relative “unknown” in the WCG hierarchy, a long-time WCG minister named Joseph Tkach. (Son Garner Ted had split with his father, Herbert, in the late 1970s and founded a splinter organization, but Garner Ted never again achieved the level of influence and power he had exercised in WCG only a few years before.)

Turning the Ship Around

Joseph Tkach, on the other hand, soon (with the assistance of trusted, hand-picked lieutenants, some of whom had been quietly studying orthodox Christian theology on their own) began slowly, then at an accelerated pace, to dismantle Armstrong’s theological Rube Goldberg construction of inconsistent and often wrong-headed norms of belief and conduct.

One of the major errors of Armstrongism to be discarded was the denial of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Armstrong taught that God was a growing “family of divine beings.” Then, at the resurrection, all the saints would themselves become “God beings.” “God” was in the business of “reproducing Himself,” Armstrong often repeated. At present there was God the Father, then Jesus Christ (both individual persons, but separate in being and with separate wills). In addition, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses before him, Armstrong also rejected the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. Armstrong taught that the Holy Spirit was merely an impersonal force; an expression of God’s power, or merely the “stuff” of which God was “composed.” The idea of Three Persons in One God was an idea that had no Biblical basis, but was merely a concept carried over from idolatrous paganism, or so Armstrong would argue.

Tkach’s people, once they began to study the matter impartially, discovered that although the Bible did not explicitly use the expression “Trinity,” the doctrine of the Trinity was the only one that adequately addressed the question of the true nature of God. The problem wasn't that that the expression “Trinity” wasn't in the Bible. The problem lay in trying to explain to the rank-and-file WCG membership that, when all was said and done, the concept of one God in Three Persons was the only authentic biblical explanation that would satisfy all the references to God in the Bible — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — yet also remain faithful the ancient proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord…” (Dt 6:4).

The new leadership of WCG did its best to educate its members regarding this complex theological concept. WCG members were not used to thinking in abstract terms when it came to thinking about spiritual matters. Armstrong had a knack for oversimplifying even the most complex ideas to pragmatic, tangible levels and rigid thought-enforcement within the group kept most members from developing good critical-thinking skills. Nevertheless, most of the membership of WCG (those that stayed the course and did not defect to a splinter group) eventually did come to assent to the new leadership’s official embrace of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Still, one could argue there were precious few who could say exactly why they now believed in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And Grace Will Lead Me Home

These doctrinal reforms came at a steep price for the organization. By the time the dust began to settle in the late 1990s, half the ordained field ministry and almost half of the baptized lay membership had bolted WCG for pro-Armstrong splinter organizations.

One regretful consequence of the doctrinal changes going on in WCG was the common phenomenon of whole families bitterly dividing into pro- and anti-Armstrong factions. Marriages often became strained. Relatives and long-time friends no longer spoke to one another. A long-term friendship I’d had with a WCG member since the mid-1970s turned sour as my friend began to harden in his resistance to the reforms in WCG. He eventually left WCG embittered at what he saw as a betrayal of Herbert Armstrong’s “truths.” My last contact with him was in 1994.

In addition, many a WCG field minister (pastor), having decided to remain with the organization and accepting the changes, eventually resigned from his leadership out of frustration. Consider the challenge of having to reform his own thinking regarding matters he once believed Armstrong had long ago sorted out — stressful enough in itself. Now add the obligation of explaining these “new truths” to many reluctant (and sometimes openly resistant) lay members of his congregation.

Nevertheless, for those who remained, it was clearly evident that the grace of God was at work in the hearts and minds of many thousands of former converts to Armstrongism, enabling them to admit error when shown; repent, and embrace the truth. For many of us, coming to accept these reforms was in a very real sense experiencing first-hand Chesterton’s adage “that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it” (The Everlasting Man). If ever there had been an organization that stood outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy (and proud of it) it was Armstrong’s WCG. It would not be long before we no longer stood on the outside gazing through the big picture window into the house of authentic Christianity.

This series of events did not go unnoticed by leaders in the evangelical Protestant world, many of whom enthusiastically welcomed this unprecedented phenomenon — an entire cultic sect experiencing wholesale repentance and returning to the fold of historic orthodox Christianity. The year 1997 would see WCG invited to become a full-fledged member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

Like most followers of leaders of aberrant sects like WCG, I had slavishly followed Herbert Armstrong’s advice and avoided almost any book of a religious nature not written or endorsed by Armstrong. In the early 1990s the way was made clear for WCG members to expand our reading choices beyond “approved” WCG titles. It was then I began to read works by evangelical teachers and apologists. This regimen of reading (and listening to evangelical teachers on the radio) eventually led me and my wife Rosemary (like me a lapsed Catholic) to part ways with the WCG in 2000 and affiliate with a Presbyterian congregation that met in the next town. Very simply, we hungered for more than the bare-bones version of Christianity available in WCG.

Even our stint in Presbyterianism was to be short-lived as (unexpectedly) Catholicism proved an even stronger draw. WCG’s “transformation” forced us to distinguish the errors of Armstrongism from the truths of authentic Christian doctrine and often involved considerations of the historical roots of those doctrines, (e.g., God as a Trinity, Sunday Sabbath, the immortality of the soul, etc.). Although initially resistant to the possibility of returning to the Catholic Church, I had to grudgingly accept the fact that it was from the early Church (which was the Catholic Church) that the orthodox theology we were now assenting to had originated.

It was after our exposure, in late 2000 and early 2001, to the fine work of Catholic apologists who ably refuted a number of Protestant presuppositions we had embraced (Sola Scriptura among them) that my wife and I awakened to the realization that the Catholic Church was, indeed, the Church Jesus founded, and that after almost 2000 years of her existence, she has continued serving as the preeminent “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (I Tm 3:15) for all humanity.

I thank God that we are back.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Dennis Gerard Embo’s amazing reversion story is told in more detail in his book The God That Prevailed available at www.dgembo.net.

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