Robin – Former Follower of Armstrong

From a tiny child I believed in God. I cannot remember a time when I did not believe that God was there, but as a tiny child – of course – I knew nothing about Jesus.

The earliest event which could be called a ‘religious experience’ occurred when I was about 4 years old. It was a warm summer’s day and I was playing in the garden. All of a sudden I heard this sound which – to me – seemed incredibly beautiful. The sound went on and on. I decided to lay on the daisy-covered grass just to listen. Then one of my sisters came along (they were all older than myself), I asked what that incredible sound was. “Why, its church bells ringing”, I was told.

Oh, there was one other unusual occasion; I was with my parents and the sister closest to my age, Wendy, and we had gone to Battersea Funfair in London. All Londoners will know where that was. I was, perhaps, slightly older now but still very young. I was entranced by all the colourful attractions which my young mind struggled to take in. All of a sudden I can distinctly recall asking my parents, “Is it like this is heaven?” I can still remember my Mum & Dad falling about laughing!

I heard a bit more about Jesus specifically at school assembly. Every Friday morning the assembly was a Christian service. The old-fashioned ‘wireless’ was put on for the broadcast service which we were all required to listen to. I detested school all my life but I loved the Friday service. Those broadcasts told one all about Jesus, although my understanding of the rudiments of the gospel at that time was poor. I loved the radio service and the hymns which we sang to it. In fact, my dislike for school life in general was so strong that I just wished those Christian assemblies could have lasted and lasted! And yet, it was more than that; I found the experience of being taught about Jesus to be deeply moving – but I did not know why.

Since this is a testimony of discovering the glorious grace of Christ and not an autobiography, there is obviously much which I now have to leave out. But I grew into a rather shy and moody teenager who absolutely loved reading, and listening to jazz. My interest in the Bible was sparked both by a school friend who was a Jehovah’s Witness and by the Plain Truth magazine which was sent out free of charge by the Worldwide Church of God sect/cult. (Which, from now on, I will call the ‘WCG’). No, I am not going to debate here whether they were/are a sect or a cult. At the time I discovered this magazine I was 15 years old. This magazine was talking about the reality of a God who must be obeyed and so was my Jehovah’s Witness friend. I was also learning to play the trumpet at the time, but I recall looking at my trumpet one day and thinking, ‘I am never going to be a trumpet player, I am going to grow up preaching and warning about the end of the world to come’ – but I thought there was little time; that Christ could return so soon I might not even have time to eventually get married, which I really longed to do. (No, there was no particular girl but constant painful crushes on almost every pretty girl I saw!).

At about age 16, I had an incredible dream which shook me, but I am not going to recount that here. I will provide a link to my article on dreams at this article end and I describe the dream there.

My approach to the Bible became dictated by these early influences, although the Jehovah’s Witness I knew had far less affect upon me than the Plain Truth (so-called) magazine. I was riveted by this free mag. I just never knew that religion could be that exciting; as I read of some of the really way- out (and often quite zany) ways which this publication said that Bible prophecy would be fulfilled. Oh yes, and this would all happen “within the next few years”. Within a few years the WCG’s self-styled ‘apostle’, Herbert W. Armstrong, was saying that war would break out in Europe around 1972. This, we were told, would usher in the ‘Great Tribulation’ and Christ would return three and a half years later! Later it was said that Armstrong did not set dates – well, he did and he didn’t. But many people inside these groups – I have to say – tend to be quite easily taken in and gullible and since the WCG actually had a booklet called 1975 in Prophecy, which was a clear reference to ‘the crisis at the close’ and to Christ’s return, that was good enough for them!

I married in 1977, still not having done anything about my interest in, and enthusiasm for, the teachings of that religious mag. I had a very deep belief in God and was quite knowledgeable about the Torah (the 5 books of Moses) having studied the WCG’s ‘Bible Correspondence Course’ (which appeared to spend about 80% of its time in the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses). Soon my new wife would say, “we should be going to church – do you know of a church to go to?” Well the rest (as they say) is history. We contacted local representatives of the WCG and were eventually invited to services.

This was now spring, 1981. I was baptised by immersion at that time. The WCG may have had a problem with the Trinity, but I can honestly say that their minister baptised me, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, and I knew that this was a lifelong commitment to walk with Jesus Christ. So, although we were now attending the WCG (and would do so until January, 1994), I realised that my baptismal commitment was between myself and God, looking beyond any particular group of worshippers. Apparently some WCG people did not understand that, but I did. Therefore I have never felt the need to be ‘re-baptized’. Tina (my wife) was not baptised until around 1989. The WCG so-called ‘apostle’, Herbert W. Armstrong, died in January 1986.

When Armstrong died, there was real excitement among a few that God’s apostle now having been taken from the world, the time had arrived to go to ‘The Place of Safety’. We had been taught that we would spend the three-and-a-half-year ‘Great Tribulation’ in a desert location probably around Petra, Jordan, while there was nuclear mayhem in the world, with the ‘United States of Europe’ having attacked both Britain and the United States! Please don’t laugh but, even long before then, a few had started making arrangements to leave our society by selling up what they had. We heard about one guy who intended taking a caravan (trailer) with him, he had already loaded it with so many things for the journey, that the weight of them forced his floor to collapse!

Armstrong was not a genuinely righteous man who walked with God but who erred in certain areas (as some WCG people like to say), he was a false prophet who picked the bits out of the Bible he liked and ignored the rest and would easily fall into the category of people who distort the message of the gospel, á la Galatians chapter one (read it!). There are current and former WCG people out there who will not be able to move on until they accept that Armstrong was a false prophet who perverted the Word of God. Am I saying that he was wholly evil? Of course not, he was like all of us; a mixture of many things. Yet, sincere or not, biblically, he was a deceiver. I continue to be alarmed that some current WCG people still cannot accept this, which is precisely why they have not moved forward in Bible understanding as much as they should have done by now. There are too many out there who are still trying to hold this sort of tension between many of the things which Armstrong taught, and “the new teachings”. You cannot do it. You need to go back to basics. Stand back and ask, what is the primary message of the Holy Bible? What did Jesus teach? Does the message of the gospel which is to be taken to the world have anything to do with obscure verses in Leviticus or Deuteronomy? Of course not! If it did, only Jews would have any chance of salvation, but salvation – through Christ – was now freely offered to all! He was the inaugurator of the long promised New Covenant! For any wanting in-depth teaching on exactly where the Adventist-type cults & sects go wrong, please refer to my article, The Move Away From Legalism. Well, I could go on, but must not. We now need to move on.

In April, 1991, I was appointed as a ‘sermonette man’. In other words, I became a lay preacher within the WCG. This was now quite an invigorating time. Armstrong had died, and the new leader of the WCG was Mr Joseph W. Tkach, an American of Russian extraction. This man proved to be amazingly honest and forthright and – without question – the Holy Spirit worked through this humble human vessel in bringing the message of Christ and the gospel to those living in the dark deception of a cult! Obviously, he was hated by the ‘old guard’ ministers, and splinter groups started to break off, who wanted to keep the real kosher Armstrongism going!

It might seem very odd to some that such a group as we were should have suddenly developed an ‘evangelical wing’ but we did and, in our local area, I was immediately part of it. The minister who appointed me to preach was – at least to a degree – ‘reformist’, but our local minister was hard-line ‘old guard’ and this obviously led to a few problems. But even before Armstrong had died, I was beginning to have serious doubts about some of his claims. A few of us were very uncomfortable with his lavish lifestyle (he even had a personal jet aircraft!), and while he still lived (as far as I can recall), I started to reject his prosperity and success teaching which he upheld in a booklet called, ‘The Seven Laws of Success’. The booklet was so unchristian and inherently flawed that it was an embarrassment. I remember being so happy that the booklet quietly disappeared from circulation soon after Armstrong’s death.

Joseph Tkach, Armstrong’s successor, valiantly set about turning over the very deep errors which had been part of our WCG existence. My own understanding was also moving on, at about the same pace and in the same direction, especially when I started preaching. I strove to be meticulous in my speaking preparation, and my much deeper study of the Bible at this time was starting to uncover all sorts of areas where the WCG had clearly been wrong. I hate to say it, but many of the Armstrongist legalists now started to show their true colours. Tkach even received death threats at this time. These people were not interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ, only in perpetuating Armstrongism. The most vital problem of many within such groups as the WCG is that they all tend to uphold ‘justification by works’ (though they will rarely admit it). They preach a works-based salvation. But the New Testament clearly upholds ‘Justification by Faith Alone’. This is especially clear through the writings of Paul, especially in the Book of Romans. Romans has (correctly) been called the most heavily doctrinal book in the whole Bible. We should have been paying particular attention to such books! But, in fact, only about five verses were ever quoted out of this book by Armstrong and he kept quoting them simply because they appeared – on the surface – to back up his extremism. Of course, if one is prepared to twist the Scriptures, pulling them totally out of context, it is easy to abuse the Scriptures.

The correct understanding of justification; that Christ’s righteousness has to be imputed to us, and that we can never earn entry into God’s kingdom, came as a wonderfully joyful revelation to me. I now knew that my salvation was a gift from God and that my ‘membership’ of the WCG had little or nothing to do with it! Neither did such matters as whether or not I observed the seventh day Sabbath! After all, the Sabbath is not one of the few things mentioned in Acts 15, where the early Church made a decision, guided by the Holy Spirit, about which laws would be relevant for Gentiles to be made aware of! And, as Paul clearly showed, those who wanted to be justified by law had better make sure that they keep the whole law! – of course, none have ever succeeded in that. The law was only ever intended as a teacher in order to show us how evil we are and how much we need Christ!

In contrast to that, WCG legalism was intrusive and pervasive, yet it was also quite selective. Armstrong was very enthusiastic about certain Old Testament laws, even while he ignored others.

He was very enthusiastic about:

1. Tithing
Tithing allowed Armstrong to live in luxury even while many WCG members lived in a financially precarious world! Yet he amazingly always upheld the myth that he lived a very simple existence with no money of his own.

2. British-Israelitism
This is the teaching (which had also been quite popular with many Victorians) that the British were descended from one or more of the 12 tribes of Israel. The whole theory is heavily dependent on ancient lore and legends and is clearly imposed upon the Bible. I’m afraid that Mr Armstrong’s flawed booklet on the subject just did not stand up to any serious investigation or scrutiny. Obviously, he got the theory from others (although he always denied this). Amazingly, it was British-Israelitism which many found difficult to leave behind when the post-Armstrong WCG started to admit that the theory was flawed.

3. The Sabbath
The seventh-day Sabbath was a fascination for Armstrong and he peddled the usual myths and failures in understanding of all the seventh-day people. How sad that a bright and intelligent man like Armstrong wished to ape the abuse of Christian history of the seventh day people! I won’t go into this here because we have several articles which cover this subject in some depth, but the simple truth is that the early Christians soon departed from ‘keeping’ any particular days at all. Yet they soon preferred to assemble on the First Day, partly because it became a ‘rest day’ in the Roman Empire and partly because, as the day of the resurrection, it seemed a most appropriate day to meet to worship the risen Christ. In fact, even in the New Testament itself we see evidence of Christians beginning to meet on Sundays. Armstrong appeared to believe the Roman Catholic myth that they themselves changed the day that the Sabbath should be kept (even though we know from various early writings such as the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas and the writings of Justin Martyr that Sunday was the day on which Christians assembled many, many hundreds of years before there was ever such a thing as a Roman Catholic Church!) Odd how he accepted this particular unhistorical Roman Catholic myth when he was usually so quick to point out others. I also believe that many of the early WCG writers were confused that the early church writers always referred to the Church as catholic – but they simply meant ‘universal’ – this was never meant to be a reference to the Roman Catholic Church as an organisation. But a person who delves into church history on a kind of hobbyist level is not going to understand some of these things.

4. Leviticus 11 and ‘Unclean Meats’
WCG people were forbidden to eat pork and bacon á la Leviticus 11, even though the New Testament states that unclean meats were cleansed. Moreover, Acts 15 makes it clear that such topics as the Sabbath and the eating of such meats were not to be included in the instructions passed on to non-Jewish Christians.

5. Prophecy
Most of Armstrong’s conclusions on Bible Prophecy came from various other groups/writers with just a few touches added by himself. Obviously, in some areas he was correct, but in most areas he shared the great misunderstandings of other seventh-day groups. He had also obviously been a little influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible, an early dispensational work no longer exactly held in the greatest esteem as a model of biblical understanding and learning! How very sad that Mr Armstrong had not chosen some of the truly great Bible expositors such as Matthew Henry or Henry Halley as his mentors.

6. The Jewish holydays of Leviticus 23
Of course, Armstrong would not have called these ‘Jewish’ because he accepted the great error that only Judahites were ever considered to be Jews. There is no doubt, of course, that these Holydays contain great spiritual lessons for us, but it remains the case that they formed part of a covenant which is now obsolete in Christ. But in the old-style WCG, families were required to observe these days just as they were required to keep the Sabbath from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset. Failure to keep these days meant disfellowshipping and actually, within Armstrongism, it had to mean that because justification by works (which is actually a Christian heresy) could not be undermined!

So what kind of appraisal of Herbert W. Armstrong would I come up with? Well, in many ways he was indeed a sincere man. I believe (though thousands would disagree with me) that he really and truly thought that he was the only religious leader upon this earth that God was using. Yet one of his own favourite lines was, ‘You can be sincere, but sincerely deceived’ . The irony is; how much this applied to him! Armstrong was really a gifted advertising man and salesman – this was his forte! As the saying goes, ‘He could sell you a dead donkey, then make you so grateful that he had allowed you to buy it off him!’

He was one of the most persuasive of men and a man of infectious enthusiasm. Yet tragically, it is easy for individuals who are so gifted in those particular areas to deceive others! Ideally, Armstrong should never have been allowed anywhere near the Holy Bible! And yet, his own views were one thing which he might well have been entitled to, but his cardinal error was in influencing thousands of people to accept his great errors in understanding as (literally) Gospel Truth!’

Yes, undoubtedly God allowed those of us who left the WCG and who are now Christians, to travel down this particular path to true Christianity. Similarly, the apostle Paul had been a Pharisee. Yet, I am sure that while he later recognised that God chose this route for him, he was not exactly proud of his past. Neither, to be perfectly frank, are my wife and I exactly proud of our own route to Christ. Yet it is a fact, and we don’t attempt to hide it.

Confusion reigned over large sections of the WCG around 1993/94 and rumour often ruled the day. I was unofficially told that a fairly high-ranking U.S. minister was coming to the UK and intended to set up a personal meeting with me, another rumour said that I would be offered the position of local elder, but by this time Tina and I felt ourselves to be evangelicals and I had serious doubts about being a WCG ‘local elder’ – in the event, while the particular minister did come to the UK, he neither rang me nor came to our home. I would say that he probably had more important things to attend to at the time, but just a few months later this very minister left the WCG, severing all ties between them and himself! Since I have never heard of this particular former WCG minister since then, I have no idea whether his objections to the WCG were from an evangelical or legalist perspective.

My wife and I finally left the WCG in January, 1994. The very last thing which we ever did was to arrange a children’s party in our local congregation. This had to be held after sunset on a Saturday evening in order to comply with ‘Sabbath regulations’, and this was several years after Armstrong’s demise. Legalism continued to pervade large areas of the WCG then and apparently this is still the case especially in certain congregations. The next summer, however, I did attend three more services after being assured that ‘the WCG was now entirely changed for the better’ (but I found this claim to be wholly incorrect, although there was certainly now a great deal of confusion within the group, which had not previously been the case). On the first of these final three occasions of attending, the ‘sermon’ was given by a minister about to be fired for wanting to stay with Armstrongist teachings. He boasted quite brazenly about how he had got the WCG to pay a first-class air fare for his recent visit to the States. Upon hearing this, my wife and I agreed there and then that we would never contribute another penny to this organisation! In fact, this man had caused havoc and the WCG had been warned about what he was doing, but had chosen to ignore it.

On the second occasion, it was just myself from my family attending (my wife never attended the WCG again), I heard a sermon from a man who preached just as though Armstrong was still around. The message was full of theological flaws and I distinctly remember thinking, ‘How much longer will these people have to be exposed to such flawed teaching?’ The preacher, a WCG ‘veteran’, propounded the notion (which Armstrong himself had upheld), that Martin Luther had tried to ‘do away’ with the Old Testament – absolutely not true, of course; it seems that there was some confusion between Luther and the heretic Marcion among some WCG ‘oldtimers’ – and here was a main problem: many still thought that if Armstrong had said something, then it must be correct – no need to confuse oneself with looking up the historical facts.

I only ever attended the WCG once more after that, but this was just in order to speak to the congregation’s new minister, whom I will call ‘TL’. That day while at home, my wife had earnestly prayed that the Lord should reveal to me whether there was any future for us in the WCG – after all, we were now conservative evangelicals and would only hang around if the WCG were now fully committed to reform. Well, my wife’s prayer was richly answered! After a long after-service talk with the new minister, it was absolutely clear that we would leave. He told me of a decision made by the WCG’s British office at Borehamwood that they would go for a ‘half-way’ approach somewhere between what Armstrong had taught (this was now about eight years after Armstrong’s death!) and the Christian approach! – I could hardly believe what I heard, but Tina’s prayer was clearly answered! We never returned, neither did we ever regret our decision, even for one moment.

The prevarication of the WCG at that time proved to be a serious error for the organisation. There was a need to own up to the whole truth about Armstrong and his teachings, but – instead of this – a vacuum was created in which congregations could believe almost whatever they wanted to. One hears that this remains the situation in many congregations – yet this is far from the picture of a wholly evangelical group which is usually presented these days to mainstream Christians. At a time when there was an urgent need for the WCG to be served by Bible-believing and well-trained evangelical preachers, the group only had its own ‘ministers’ and its ‘sermonette men’ to fall back on. I could say a lot about some of these individuals (many of whom I knew personally), but I will pass over on it.

If the organisation had been more decisive at that time, they could have held on to scores of us who could have been of great assistance in bringing real biblical truth to its people; but there were a few ambitious people in the WCG at that time who wanted to be leaders and saw the confusion as a possible way of pushing themselves forward – they did not want the evangelicals to be hanging around! Again, I knew some of these men personally – I dislike being ungenerous, but I would have to say that the biblical knowledge of some of these individuals might be best described as being comparable to a moth’s knowledge of advanced jet propulsion theory – I don’t say this of every single one but of many who came to the fore in the mid-1990s! One US-based local elder who was pushed forward at the time without the necessary training and knowledge e-mailed me about a year ago with a most amazing story of his experiences, but they are experiences which I cannot reveal here because of the confidentiality which a Christian minister is bound to observe. But certainly, in adopting a ‘middle ground’ approach – at least here in the UK – only the indecisive and unsure could be satisfied! It was also undoubtedly a major error in continuing to allow so many leading ministers who were so strongly associated with Armstrongism to remain in leading positions in the organisation. This has spoken volumes to those evangelicals whom the WCG like to think are now wholly supportive of them!

In the autumn of 1995 I commenced my theology degree at Cardiff University, graduating with honours in 1998. Sadly two years later Cardiff University stopped offering theology degrees which seems a pity because Cardiff theology degrees had been considered prestigious; study of both Hebrew and Greek were considered important. I was astonished to find that I had a flair for languages which I had previously been unaware of! I found the study of Greek to be especially beneficial. Cardiff was not considered an ‘evangelical’ place to study theology, but this worked in my favour because I learnt that liberal theology is flawed right the way through and my evangelical, Bible-believing approach was actually strengthened. But only a small part of the material we were subjected to was truly liberal and none at all in my final year when I could choose my own study modules.

Even before leaving the WCG I had discovered the glories of good evangelical theology (not to be confused with the charismatic movement). It was a joy to discover that while Armstrong had so arrogantly claimed that he was the only leader on earth upholding biblical teaching, in fact, there were a wealth of good biblical teachers who had written much good material. Tina and I are conservative evangelical, theologically closer to Baptist than Presbyterian but really seeing ourselves as non-denominational. I was accepted as a prospective Baptist minister in 1998, but have never pastored a congregation. Rather, I have preached really widely in the southern UK as a guest minister, and have written a great deal. Many of the things which I have written can be found on various Christian sites right across the Internet. I have also contributed to one or two Christian papers and have had the somewhat amusing result that – in some cases – my material later appeared under different names! In one case, I submitted a short article to a Christian paper showing how the proper procedures for appointing pastors to churches within one Christian denomination were being flagrantly disregarded to everybody’s detriment. The Editor greeted my comments with wholehearted enthusiasm and asked me if he could print in the paper. I gave the go-ahead. Later my article appeared – lock, stock and barrel – in his Editorial! I was later told that this was in order to ‘protect my identity’, however, I am not exactly in hiding! Only a small part of my writing has been concerned with Armstrongism; for the most part, we would now prefer to put that behind us.

Internet evangelism seems to be the area which our Lord has mainly called me to minister in, and it is a most fascinating area which I take real joy in. Our web sites seem to have developed their own ‘congregation’, thus my ‘flock’ are not a few people living locally to a meeting place, but are people from all over the world! People are regularly coming ‘on-site’, reading our material and asking me questions and they live in various parts of Canada, USA, Australia, India, Philippines, UK and other places too. Since we launched our first, somewhat humble, site in November 2001, we have had many thousands of site visitors!

So, what of the present ‘reformed’ WCG?

First of all, I take real joy when any from such a group as the WCG truly find Christ and are able to ditch the legalism. I know this applies to a group of people in the WCG, perhaps even a sizeable group. However, I am afraid that there are still huge questions from its past which the WCG organisation has never really satisfactorily addressed. At Museltof Christian Ministries, we have to counsel with many who believe that their lives were ruined by their involvement in this group. They have been left confused, angry and bitter at the way they were treated. Sure, I encourage these people to seek the Lord’s help in helping them to forgive. But the road is hard for many of them. It is also interesting what a large group of former WCG people are now outright atheists! Some of these things are the legacy of the old-style WCG! The situation is made harder by the WCG’s apparently ongoing cult-like approach of completely writing off any people who leave their organisation. My wife and I – through the grace of Christ – have been able to put our experiences completely behind us, unfortunately many others cannot do so quite so easily. We should pray for these people.

So let us all glory in the glorious grace of God the Father who so magnificently and so generously drew us to His Son in whom alone is salvation for our souls!

Robin A. Brace 2002
(Revised and slightly updated, August, 2003)

Go here for Robin’s latest (September 2006) update regarding the situation with the Worldwide Church of God.

Categories: Apologetics

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