The Worldwide Church of God--What really happened?

The Worldwide church of God (now called Grace Communion International) had taught, for a long time, doctrines that were very distinct from mainstream Christianity. For example, it was binitarian rather than trinitarian, it taught that God reproduces and after death we will be the result of that reproductive process, it taught we’re still supposed to follow a lot of the OT dietary restrictions, etc etc.

Its founder Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, and by 1996 the church had drastically changed its doctrines, and in fact was eventually accepted into national Evangelical associations–meaning its doctrines were now completely mainstream and orthodox.

Church leadership at the time characterized this as something the Holy Spirit sort of dragged them kicking and screaming into. They claimed they didn’t want to change, didn’t want to let go of their church’s unique doctrines, and did not refer to any theologians outside the church in deciding what their own church ought to teach. Rather, they had simply decided to listen to what the Holy Spirit was telling them as they engaged in serious, deep study of the Scriptures. And what they came up with was plain vanilla orthodox evangelical Christianity.

Of course I can’t believe a word of this. :wink: (Not least because there is no such thing as the Holy Spirit…) But I am hard pressed to come up with an explanation for why a group of people with a lot of power in their community would decide together to make very drastic changes to the rules governing that community when doing this predictably decimated the income and membership of their church. I can’t figure out, basically, what was in it for the leaders.

Material gain? Their church fell apart, and surely they knew it would (?), so it seems material gain wasn’t the issue.

Social status? They gained standing in the community of Christian churches at large, but most of these guys were raised in this church and would presumably not really care about gaining standing in a community of organizations they had heretofore thought of as agents of the devil. (Very very gradual evolution of views over a few generations would make sense here, but sudden top-down doctrinal changes at this massive scale?)

Some kind of admirably hardheaded devotion to truth? Even if we take them at their word that they made these decisions as a result of careful bible study, this still leaves wide open the question of why this led them to such huge, systematic changes in the direction of evangelical christianity instead of leading them to double down on their own doctrines. Plenty of churchgoers in all kinds of churches engage in serious, thoughtful bible reading, and find their prior beliefs magically confirmed every time.

Factional politics? Surely there are signs that under its founder there was a lot of infighting happening at the top. The guy even went so far as to excommunicate his own son, which seems a clear sign to me that his leadership style was oppositional to say the least. But if there was some kind of factional political explanation here (such that one faction found its best way to take power was to massively change church doctrines) that explanation is fairly empty unless we know why exactly there would be this connection between changing doctrine towards evangelicalism and the advancement of some particular political faction in the church.

So what the heck really happened? Do we have any “insider accounts” from that time or anything that may shed light on the politics, or on sociological or anthropological processes that may have been in action in all this?

I’m always fascinated by deep changes in religious belief, whether at the individual or collective level. It always seems ultimately arbitrary to me, yet those undergoing such changes find them very significant. They tend to offer supernatural explanations, but of course supernatural explanations are bankrupt. So–someone has made a change that seems very significant to them, yet seems ultimately arbitrary to me if there’s no explanation offered, and yet the offered explanation seems completely unsatisfactory. I can’t be having this!

ETA: Another explanation occurs to me, though I’m not convinced it’s very plausible–if the founder had an abusive leadership style, could the changes subsequent to his death have been simply an expression of contempt or anger by the people he’d been abusing, whether consciously or un-?

From an admittedly very angrily biased source, there may be some clues that may help tell a coherent story here.

It looks like several of the leaders had attended a mainstream seminary several years prior as part of a project for the church to pursue accreditation for its own bible college. So another explanation is one I didn’t really take seriously in the OP–simple outside influence. The leaders saw what it was like in a more intellectually open religious climate, and liked what they saw.

This just me applying pretty basic organizational behavior theory to the case. Given that 100% speculation:

The new leadership wanted to grow the brand because … profit! They thought they could re-focus towards more mainstream beliefs and gain fresh adherents *en masse *without losing their current members.

Turns out they thought wrong. By the time they realized they were losing current members far more quickly & effectively than they were attracting new ones, they’d entered an economic death spiral. And of course right about then the recriminations amongst the inner circle would reach a fever pitch.

To cap it all, how do they reverse course again when their first reversal was loudly& widely touted as being divinely inspired? At least when a new CEO promptly drives a firm into the ditch (JC Penney anyone?) the board can fire that person and appoint a fresh CEO to take yet another direction or return to the old and proven ways.

Herbert so loved the world he sacrificed his only begotten son…

Couldn’t some of it have just been that, while Armstrong were alive and leading the church, he was able to enforce his religious views on the church. After he was gone, those members in the church leadership who favored a more orthodox view were able to prevail.

I think that Herbert was mischaracterized in the OP. OP seems determined to call Armstrong an abusive leader. He didn’t just kick his son out in some sort of squalid organizational infighting-his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, was quite the unrepentant libertine and a spokesman and leader of sorts within the church, and that kind of activity was a fundamental flaw. Nowadays, just a mea culpa will get one back into the leadership positions of most churches, with a hefty bonus to boot, but, back then, even a quasi-Christian denomination could not have survived with that kind of activity.

Also, what Captain Amazing said.

Also, look at Luther and the Catholic Reformation.

Plus, it’s well-documented from multiple sources that Pervert W. Armstrong raped his daughter.

If they were seeking accreditation, they were already on the route of being accepted by the outside world.

Brief hijack- I never knew much about the inner workings of the Armstrong family or their church, but I used to read their Plain Truth magazine as a kid, and it offered a lot of very interesting political analysis.

Now, much of that analysis was used in the service of some very nutty apocalyptic prophesies (they though the rise of the European Union amounted to the rebirth of the Roman empire, which meant that the book of Revelation was about to be fulfilled), but they had some very talented and well-informed geopolitical analysts in the Seventies.

The sense I got (again, I have NO inside knowledge) was that Herbert had passed control to son Garner Ted Armstrong, but came out of retirement and booted his son because Garner Ted Armstrong was a major league boozer and womanizer, and Papa Herbert was getting tired of it.

Now, when ANY church is too completely dominated by one man or one family, things get rough when that one man or family is no longer around. I would guess that once the Armstrongs were out of the picture, their most prominent followers saw the writing on the wall, and figured the church would die if it didn’t head in a more mainstream Protestant direction. But their efforts to move the church in that direction failed, and they lost most of the followers they’d had.

Many a megachurch has collapsed once its charismatic founder dies or retires. It’s not unusual.

Is this a whoosh? I’m just curious, since I’ve never heard anything even close to this.

ETA: Disregard. Just googled it. Checking it out now.

How’s Harold Camping’s church doing these days? I’d never heard the Worldwide Church of God before reading this thread, but churches that preach that JESUS IS COMING, SOON! run the risk of losing the faithful when he doesn’t. (The Adventists being a notable exception, although they fudged it - JC did come back, but only in heaven, where he’s busily sorting out the sheep and the goats, in preparation for coming back to earth.)

Perhaps that’s what happened to the WWCOG, and the current leaders think that standard evangelical Christianity is a better growth proposition.

Basically, with the (Arm)Strong Man out of the picture, the edifice shattered. The named successors realized they were on the fringe of conservative Christendom and tried to postion the church more within it. In reaction, the more sectarian pastors broke away & claimed they were the legitimate spiritual successors.

If I were to ever leave my church & a GCI one was nearby, I’d attend that as it has positioned itself very non-dogmatically in the areas of Creation, the Afterlife, and the Apocalypse, while maintaining the centrality of the Triune God revealed thru Jesus, and our need for personal salvation.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to a wide range of preaching broadcasts & both HWA & GTA fascinated me, even as I usually disagreed with their more fringe teaching. As someone who likes to assume the best of those, even when I disagree with them, I was dismayed by GTA’s carousing & even more disturbed by the HWA incest allegations. I haven’t read enough evidence to convict, but there’s enough smoke for reasonable suspicion of a fire.

Pretty disturbing, isn’t it?