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Denomination Riven by Dramatic Changes in Doctrine : Religion: Worldwide Church of God has rejected many of founder's teachings. Some embrace new beliefs; others see them as devil's work. A third of members have left.

November 26, 1995|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

The self-proclaimed prophet, while he lived, foretold many things that were to be.

He spoke of a coming worldwide upheaval. He spoke of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

But Herbert W. Armstrong never foresaw the upheaval now being visited upon the church he founded.

It was not to be the end of the world, but the end of the Worldwide Church of God as he knew it--and his vaunted place on the battlements of belief.

Less than a decade after Armstrong's death in 1986, members of the Pasadena-based church are facing a crisis of faith.

Armstrong's most sacrosanct teachings, his successors are saying, were wrong. The very underpinnings of faith on which believers modeled their earthly lives and placed their hopes of heaven are deemed to be false.

Believers did not have to turn down a needed job because it would have forced them to work on the Saturday Sabbath. Tithing was not supposed to be so burdensome that families denied themselves basic necessities. Interracial marriage was not biblically prohibited.

And most unsettling of all, the new church leaders said Armstrong was wrong about how to get to heaven.

The startling epiphany by Armstrong's successors has shaken the church to its doctrinal foundations, scattered members and divided families and friends.

For those who have embraced the changes, the church's transformation is nothing less than a Protestant Reformation in miniature. They rejoice as the once cult-like institution founded in 1934 as the Radio Church of God moves toward mainstream evangelical Protestantism.

But members of the old guard call it the work of the devil. They warn that unless the church turns from its "rebellion," its apostate members will face the Great Tribulation foretold in the Bible that is to proceed the rule of Christ.

Indeed, the changes at Worldwide are seen as a sign that the end is near by Rod Meredith, a former high-ranking evangelist who left to form the Global Church of God, headquartered near San Diego, which now claims 7,000 members.

"We read in the Bible, you know, that Satan is the god of this age. He's going to be moving very powerfully at the end of this age, and the world reflects that," Meredith said.

"There's a constant feeling now of rebellion. . . . I think that's reflected a little way in this current situation where they [Worldwide leaders] have rebelled against the truth of God. We didn't [leave] to rebel against them. After all, who changed? . . . They're the ones that changed the doctrine."

Fully a third of Worldwide's 104,000 members--including 150 of its 400 ministers--have joined one of at least eight breakaway denominations that remain true to Armstrong's vision, including Global and the Arcadia-based United Church of God, headed by Worldwide's former public affairs director, David Hulme, which reports 17,450 members.

The exodus and reduction in tithes and offerings have forced the Worldwide Church to make drastic cuts in its operating budget. Its prime 56-acre headquarters campus in Pasadena is up for sale. Its critically acclaimed concert series at Ambassador Auditorium has been canceled, and the Pasadena campus of Ambassador College has been shut down. Even Armstrong's personal silverware has been auctioned off.

Then, in September, the man who steered the church onto its new course, Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach Sr., died of cancer, leaving to his son and a handful of trusted advisers the formidable task of moving the church into the Christian mainstream.

Theologians and sociologists say that the upheaval offers a fascinating case study of what happens to institutions and people when the theological rug is pulled out from under them.

Change often sweeps through a sect after a charismatic leader such as Armstrong dies. There are fewer restraints on questioning old dogmas, especially for younger members. For their parents, the old teachings were a means of asserting the group's identity and its unique place in God's plan. But among their children, the same tenets that bound them together in a community of shared values and lifestyles also isolated them from the mainstream.

The theological shifts within the Worldwide Church of God have been breathtaking.

"This is very radical in terms of changes within a single religious organization," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara.

Contrary to Armstrong's teachings, there is no longer a belief that England and the United States, and their Anglo-Saxon inhabitants, constitute two of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel and as such are among God's chosen people.

The church no longer rejects the mainstream Christian Trinitarian doctrine of God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It no longer teaches that its members are born again at a resurrection into God's family and thus become gods themselves, although not equal with God.

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