Interview between Doug Harris of Reachout Trust and John Halford Editor of Plain Truth and Regional Director of the Worldwide Church of God – Autumn 1998.
DOUG: Could you give us a little of your background, how you came to the WCG, etc?
JOHN: I have been a member since 1961. I was raised in Kent and Middlesex, and had a Grammar school education. I was raised a Catholic, but lost interest in my early teens.
When my mother, who was always seeking religious truth became interested in the Plain Truth magazine, I at first ridiculed it. But one day I read an article and was intrigued. It was at a low point in my life – I was in a dead end job, and not sure what direction to take. One thing led to another, and I began to attend the London Congregation of the WCG in October 1961.
I went to Ambassador College in 1962, and two years later was transferred to the headquarters branch in Pasadena, California.
I married in 1967, and my wife and I were assigned to Australia. I worked there for nearly eleven years, both in local pastoring, administration and in building small congregations of the church in South East Asia. In 1977 I was transferred to the USA, and worked there until 1995. I was principally involved in teaching, publications and TV production. I also travelled widely for the church in all parts of the world.
In August 1995, I was asked to return to Europe to oversee the church’s operations here.
DOUG: Did you struggle with the doctrine of law and grace and what changes in this have you known in your life over the past months.
JOHN: I am often asked this question. I think it is because people sense there is a great story in a cult wrestling with the tension between Biblical truth and the teachings of a charismatic founder. Others suspect we have, in true cult style, blindly followed a new set of leaders into another set of beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. I realise it is difficult to see yourself as others see you, but I believe there is misconception about the ‘cultishness’ of the WCG. We did, and do, think for ourselves.
Certainly the church had many wrong teachings, and our view of Christianity was inadequate. I feel that we were in some ways like Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). We are very grateful to those who have taught us the way more perfectly. Whatever our founder’s faults, he did teach us ‘not believe him, but to believe the Bible’. Those of us who have stayed with the Worldwide Church of God are trying to do this. The tension is not so much ‘going back on what Mr. Armstrong taught’ so much as trying to assimilate some challenging new ideas. Tradition dies hard, and many members, including many of my closest friends left the church. Thankfully many of us stayed and gave this new understanding a hearing. It was hard at first for me to disentangle law and tradition. It was also hard at first to see why the sudden emphasis on grace, because I personally never did believe keeping the Sabbath, and obeying dietary laws, etc., ‘saved me’. Only the blood of Jesus Christ could do that. But I did believe that the traditions based on Old Testament law were the right way to live a Christian life.
The biggest adjustment was to accept that others, who did not do these things, were as good, if not better, Christians than myself. If there was a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment for me, it was in a Roman Catholic orphanage for children with AIDS in Zambia. I was on assignment for the Plain Truth. I saw how humble nuns, whose way of worship was so different to my own, and whose church I had allowed myself to despise, truly loved and accepted those desperately ill little children, whereas I was afraid of them. How could I say they were not Christian?
I realised that my denomination was tearing itself apart over what after all were details. The scripture in Matthew 25 “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” came into my mind, and stayed there. I realised we had focused far too strongly on trying to understand and anticipate the prophetic implications of Matthew 24. Yet Jesus said we would be judged by our understanding of that next chapter. That showed an understanding of Jesus’ good news of forgiveness, love and grace.
That is when I decided to stay with the Worldwide Church of God and do what I could to help it through the difficult time it was facing.
I was not in the forefront of the changes, and perhaps even today am considered conservative by some of my peers. But I have wholeheartedly embraced the thrust of our changes, particularly in regard to abandoning legalism and fully accepting the doctrine of grace.
DOUG: Can you confirm that the gospel now preached by the WCG is wholly grace, and based totally on the finished work of Jesus Christ and nothing that we can do?
JOHN: Yes. I can say unequivocally that this is what we now believe and teach. In some ways we always believed this, but we were muddled. Many of us often preached on Romans 7:7-25, seeing in ourselves the dichotomy that Paul expressed. It was with a sense of great relief that many of us finally and fully grasped the relationship between grace and law, and realised there was indeed nothing we had done, did do or could do that could earn salvation. Jesus did all that needed to be done – indeed all that could be done. As I said, I am sure many of us had some understanding of this, but saw it, as it were, through a veil. Thus it was easy to get sidetracked with prophecy.
Do all our members understand this? I think most do, because I think most of us had glimpsed that our legalism was not earning us salvation. I think the die-hard legalists have left us. We needed help in putting it all together, and we have appreciated the help we have had from others in the Christian community.
DOUG: Could you please explain the difference in the use of the term ‘born again’ today compared with what was taught in the past.
JOHN: In the past we believed a Christian was not actually ‘born again’ until he or she received a glorified body in the resurrection. We regarded the time lived as a Christian between conversion and death as analogous to an embryonic or foetal stage, and we referred to it as ‘begotten again’. In a sense, it was a question of semantics. Once the church accepted the orthodox view of salvation by grace, we also accepted the orthodox understanding of ‘born again’.
DOUG: Do you feel it is still essential to meet on Saturdays, and if so why?
JOHN: It is not essential. We recognise that a strict Sabbatarian approach is inconsistent with the Gospel of grace. Our position is that Christians are free to worship God on any day of the week. We no longer judge Sunday keeping as non-Christian. In fact, some congregations of the Worldwide Church of God in the USA do now meet on Sunday. However, the great majority of the congregations in Europe at this time prefer to maintain the Saturday Sabbath practice, although recognising that it is not essential to salvation, and not judging those who worship on another day.
DOUG: Would there be some in the WCG that have not changed their doctrines and views from earlier days?
JOHN: Of course. To imply otherwise would be ridiculous. In fact, if we could, by decree, demand that all our members suddenly change their belief, would we not richly deserve to be called a cult? Obviously it takes time. Also, the question implies that everything we believed in the past needs to be changed. The very great majority of WCG members have accepted the important changes regarding legalism and salvation by grace alone. Most who have not have unfortunately left our fellowship for one of the splinter groups who maintain, to a greater or lesser extent, the traditional theological positions.
DOUG: The latest statement of beliefs that I have of the WCG is copyrighted 1995. In the Introduction we read,”This statement of beliefs does not constitute a closed creed. The Church constantly renews its commitment to truth and deeper understanding…” Does not this lead your critics to charge that as this Statement is Biblical there is not room for change and anything you add or take away will be non-Biblical?
JOHN: If that is what critics think, I suggest they are looking for trouble. All it means is that we have made a lot of changes very fast. It is necessary to have a brief form of these for reference. I think to claim a Statement of Beliefs is the final word on Biblical truth would be arrogant – for us or any other church. So what we are saying is, this is the ‘state of the art’ of our beliefs. As we understand more, or are able to define what we have learned more precisely, we will revise the statement accordingly. Is this so strange?
DOUG: How do you respond to the charge that the past has not yet been fully dealt with, and wouldn’t a new name be helpful to show your clear break with the past?
JOHN: We are not intending to make “a clear break with the past.” We want people to know that God, through his Holy Spirit, moved in our denomination and changed us. Everything about our denomination has had to be looked at anew. Some things we changed, some we abandoned, some we have kept. Like all churches we have our distinctives, but well within the limits of ‘orthodoxy’. Some have told us this is unprecedented in at least modern church history (it may be – I don’t know.)
We believe the Holy Spirit has led us on an unusual journey. We do not yet fully understand why. Our friends in other Christian fellowships have encouraged us to stay the course, and let God finish what he has so obviously begun.
We have congregations on all inhabited continents – and dozens of countries. We are sharing this unusual experience – both the agony and the ecstasy of it – together, on a worldwide basis. So why change our name?
DOUG: Is there still any distinct difference between the WCG and other mainline Christian churches, and why did you not disband and suggest your members join the nearest evangelical church?
JOHN: With respect, I think the answer is inherent in your question. The fact that you can talk about other mainline churches (plural) shows there are differences between them. I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when he prayed we would all be one, but that is another matter.
Others have told us that God has not done what he has done in the WCG just to have it evaporate. They tell us the Holy Spirit has worked a very unusual work in us, and they encourage us to stay the course, painful and traumatic though it may be.
I hope that all this does not sound arrogant. In the past, we have felt we were the one and only true church, the only one with a true grasp of Christianity. We have repented of that arrogance and error. Now we see ourselves as just a part of the greater body of Christ.
We bring our experience, our enhanced understanding, and whatever gifts we have to the table, and have asked God where we fit.
DOUG: Would you agree that rightly, under H. W. Armstrong, many called the WCG a cult and could you explain why you feel they should not continue to use that term of you today?
JOHN: It depends of what you mean by cult.
The WCG never was a cult in the pejorative sense, such as is used to describe some of the truly eccentric groups that practise dangerous and unacceptable behaviour. We never did this, and we never endorsed those who did. The average member of the WCG was, and is, a quiet, respectable law abiding citizen. I think the word ‘sect’ is a better descriptor.
However, cult or sect, what I think you mean is that under HWA, the WCG’s beliefs caused it to be marginalised by the orthodox Christian world. In that case, I invite any and all who are interested to examine who we are and what we are today. Our core beliefs are orthodox. We may have some aspects of our heritage and tradition that are distinctive, but then, who hasn’t? I honestly believe that anyone who thinks of the WCG today as a cult is evaluating us on obsolete and inaccurate information.
But do not take our word for it. Read our magazine. Visit our services. Come and talk. Come and see.
What more can I say?