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. (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-?