Ground Zero — Chapter 8 — Open Assault on Core Doctrines Begins

The Genesis of the United Church of God
A Personal View from Ground Zero

See previous chapters                   

As I write some of the last preamble reflecting the final days of the Worldwide Church of God before the establishment of the United Church of God, I think it is worthy to briefly reflect on the purpose of this history. As I sit and recall these often-painful experiences, I sometimes ask myself: “why am I even writing these recollections?”  Wouldn’t it just be easier and cleaner to just dismiss what happened 30 years ago and move on? If there was injustice – and from many perspectives, indeed there was – can we not simply forgive as Christians and let it go?

Of course, we have experienced forgiveness and the healing that can only come from God. Also, many years have passed with new experiences. For those who may be reading this history for the first time, it is important for me to convey that there is no rancor or any mindset of settling of accounts from the days of the 1990s.

But I do want to set the record straight and preserve an understanding of the turmoil and needless uncertainty that engulfed those days. To be sure, there was no preconceived roadmap or strategic plan toward establishing the United Church of God as a human organization. Many people – including myself and my wife Beverly – simply laid the cacophony of emotions and spiritual turbulence before God and Jesus Christ, and committed ourselves to doing the best that we could to preserve the truth. There were many hours of prayers and many days of fasting and supplication by many people in those days.

Even as things were dramatically unraveling in what some remaining WCG leaders later called the “apocalypse years” with thousands of previously faithful members heading for the exits, those who found “freedom” in their new spiritual mindset stated that this draconian action was somehow “worth it.”  Looking back, it’s hard to imagine it even took place.

 I often felt then that some of the leadership was of a mind that while spiritually bulldozing over tens of thousands of people was “unfortunate,” the end somehow justified the means.

Allow me to share a personal story. As many readers know, I am of direct Ukrainian descent. The time of World War II and its atrocities may be faint words of irrelevant history to some, but to me and my family they remain real and painfully vibrant.

This pernicious glossing over precious people’s lives brings to mind the Holodomor, the artificial famine imposed on Ukrainians in 1933. That famine – where people were deliberately starved to death -- killed as many people as the terrible Jewish holocaust did a decade later.

For decades, the perpetrators denied it ever happened. Even in 1983 when Canada wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Holodomor and asked for cooperation from the Soviet government to support a remembrance of this heinous atrocity, the response from the Russians literally was: “what famine?”  

But several years after that, the truth did come out about what happened. My mother, who came from near Kharkiv – a war-torn place you’ve probably read a great deal about recently – was a survivor of the Holodomor. As an eight-year-old girl, she remembered and recounted well the horror and frightening death in her community.

For Stalin, starving six million Ukrainians by selling off their food for capital to force submission and industrialize the Soviet Union was “worth it.” But, for six million people it certainly was not.

Clearly the physical horrific magnitude of the Holodomor greatly exceeded that what happened to the Worldwide Church of God.

But there were similarities.

To spell it out, the heavy-handed eviscerating and disemboweling of a Church for the misguided satisfaction of a small minority is essentially what happened in the meltdown of the Worldwide Church of God. While this forceful action brought what appeared to be giddy excitement and perceived “freedom” for some, for others, tens of thousands whose lives, spirit, and faith were violated – even annihilated – it spawned raw tragedy that has taken decades from which to recover. The wholesale betrayal of leadership back then left in its wake lasting distrust, broken families, lost friends, disrupted careers, smoldering resentment, and even burning hatred among some.

To go from tragedy to healing requires emotional acknowledgment of loss, admission for what happened to people, active forgiveness, and reconciliation, as Jesus Christ preached. Our Savior died for us so that we could be reconciled to God. It’s the Truth that will set us free.


Forcing New Thoughts

That was a complex ramp-up to our continuing story, but an important one. We now pick up from the previous chapter, where tremors shook the church, leading to the 1995 explosion.

As the weeks rolled by at Headquarters, the tremors mentioned in the last chapter became a regular occurrence. Almost any statement from Mr. Tkach’s office in the Pastor General’s Report, a bi-monthly newsletter to the ministry, contained content that either seemed to tamper with our established beliefs or evoked suspicion. Our ministry did not know whether Mr. Tkach wrote his column, provided an outline for what he wanted written, or simply handed it over to others to write, sometimes without his complete understanding. This content was then republished under his name in the Worldwide News, the Church’s newspaper. The style of the material was dense and ponderous. Some of the content was what we discussed in the Manuscript Review Team and Doctrinal meetings, but not all. Some of it was strikingly new to us, who were also on the committees.

Theological training at Ambassador College often did not follow the methodologies or nomenclature of traditional seminaries. We had our own speaking style and interpreting what we read in the Bible. Theological courses were organized to drink in the Word of God, not long manmade philosophies or syncretic ponderings. From a general perspective, we believed the Word of God and its applied understanding. While we always wanted to be open to new knowledge, much of our doctrine was distilled from narrative discourse as opposed to a systematic process.

That approach left us unprepared in a major way for what transpired. A corpus of unfamiliar knowledge rose up that assaulted rather than lifted up. Worse, there was an absence of kindness and understanding to faithful Christians who were now openly mocked and marginalized for not immediately jettisoning decades of devotion. It didn’t matter what they had been instructed as truth. There was an expectation of instantaneous adoption, and questioning was not encouraged.

Tension erupted everywhere. There was little “buy-in.” Resistance to the new material was strong. The promoters of the new “knowledge” and instructional material imagined widespread acceptance of new teachings. The rising volume of chatter in the ministry confirmed otherwise.

One day, after one of our MRT meetings in Pasadena, I walked down the steps of Ambassador Hall back to the Hall of Administration with Mike Feazell, Mr. Tkach Sr.’s chief assistant and a person who held deep power and influence in those days. Mike expressed to me triumphantly, “I think we’re ready now to look at what we have taught about the three days and three nights of Christ’s death and resurrection.”

I was shocked yet again. The question: “What is this?” exploded in my mind. We were still recoiling from a list of theological changes and now this one?

Back then, as the United Church of God biblically holds today, we firmly believed that Christ was crucified on a Wednesday and that He spent a full three days and three nights in the grave. That’s the only way the biblical sequence of three days and three nights fit into the week of the crucifixion. More importantly, Christ said it was the only sign of His Messiahship.

I thought we were absolutely sure about this biblical tenet. But not now. Evidently, we were sliding backward to a popular error of the Friday crucifixion, one that was categorically unbiblical. One had to suspend belief in the literal Word of God to mash up a way to embrace it.

This was personally jarring. Years of trust and confidence in prior relationships evaporated. This was a direct assault on one of our key understandings about the Messiahship of Jesus Christ. But it also brought home how deeply we were being played on the doctrinal team. Rather than the collaborative process of establishing a firm spiritual foundation – while drawing on many experienced ministers and college faculty – we were being handed a predetermined outcome and expected to play ball. Nothing— doctrine and people – was sacred or respected.

Sadly, it got worse. In one meeting of MRT Mike Feazell stated that we needed to “clean up” the  Youth Bible lessons and remove references to the Holy Days and other doctrines. People might notice that formerly immutable doctrines were quietly dissolving and vanishing in our core literature, but that “could still get it in the Youth lessons.”  That had to go.


United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy

One of the Church's core teachings concerns the promises to Abraham and the biblical identity of English-speaking peoples, primarily the United States and Great Britain. All human footsteps lead from and back to the Middle East. The Old Testament prophesies the future of major nations in the end times. As could be expected, powerful modern nations would be on that list.

In doctrinal meetings, the topic of US and BC – as this belief was colloquially and commonly referred to – arose with the thought of buttressing and refining it with more evidence than we had previously published. However, it quickly became clear in discussion that there was little desire to find supportive evidence historically, anthropologically, or archaeologically.

Some committee members called for a study to solidify the evidence as significant advances occurred in archaeology and DNA research. We needed a thorough and honest assessment before declaring a major change.

Dr. Rick Sherrod, a faculty member at our Big Sandy, Texas Ambassador campus who now lived in Pasadena, was a chief proponent and lecturer about the United States and British Commonwealth being nations descended from ancient Israel. He had conducted considerable research on the topic.

He and John Halford, one of our primary writers and researchers, set out to the United Kingdom to discover and evaluate fresh evidence linking English-speaking areas and migrations to Israel of old. Of course, in the pre-Internet and pre-Google days, they searched in libraries and reputable collections of books and manuscripts across the United Kingdom. Halford was granted research access to the library within the esteemed British Museum in London. That library collection contains more than 300,000 volumes for researching human cultures.

They returned excitedly to Pasadena and shared with me what they found. They compiled a 200-page annotated bibliography of material consisting of about 400 items to review for evidence of links to the Middle East. They were hopeful that their findings would prove fruitful, separating myth and mysticism from biblical and physical truth, thus strengthening spiritual and historical foundations.

They composed a letter to Pastor General Tkach outlining a proposal for further research and analysis based on what they had already assembled. They asked me to deliver the letter to Mr. Tkach to ensure its unbiased transmission. I did, and he read it in my presence.

From my perspective, Mr. Tkach seemed pleased and impressed! He was excited that we might now be able to better and honestly support and refine a teaching of the Church that had been a staple for many decades, but one that had suffered regular external attack and derision. He sounded hopeful about taking the next steps to implement this project with Sherrod and Halford.

The outcome of this hopeful start? Nothing happened.

Sadly, the research project was killed before it got off the ground. And when the subject of The US and BC in prophecy came up in meetings of the manuscript review team, it was met with negative reaction. Greg Albrecht more than once described our entire teaching on US and BC with a sharp: “Bogus!” That was his contribution to any further discussion about US and BC.

At the same time, the church’s belief in connectivity between the modern-day nations of the United States and the British Commonwealth was, on occasion, publicly and mistakenly lumped in with extremely radical groups, some with racist beliefs. The Worldwide Church of God, of course, had no connection with such groups and their racist beliefs and worked to publicly ensure that any misperceptions were corrected. Based on Sherrod and Halford's prior expectation of a lengthy review and analysis, a public statement was assembled that stated the church was “conducting a two-year study” about the US and BC matter.

Michael Snyder, then a primary spokesperson for the church and assistant director of the Church’s Communications and Public Affairs department, was often queried about the US and BC teaching, as well as other non-mainstream church doctrines. In answer, he would reference the proposed “two-year study” statement in formal communications and answers.

The fact is, the proposed Sherrod and Halford research was shelved. Nothing was ever done. There was no “two-year study.” One time Mike Feazell compared the teaching of US and BC to a rotten piece of fruit on a tree that would eventually fall off on its own and die.


God Is...

In 1992, a new church booklet titled "God Is..." was published. It delved into God's nature, character, and attributes. This booklet would have a far-reaching impact, fracturing deeply within the church's spiritual infrastructure.

From the outset, the booklet invited readers to ponder profound questions about God, asking: "Who Are You? What Are You?"  It explored how God revealed Himself to and interacted with humanity, showcasing His expressions of love and justice, and examining how these traits affected the lives of believers.

The booklet aimed to provide a thorough understanding of God's identity and role both in the cosmos and in individuals' personal experiences. It attempted to explain God's many dimensions, transcending our limited human understanding confined to four dimensions.

However, new and contrary content emerged within the new booklet. Chapter five, titled “Is God a Trinity?” personified the Holy Spirit, openly suggesting it might be a distinct entity like the Father and Son.

There are moments when the Holy Spirit speaks, but we have accepted that inanimate objects speaking like this can be metaphoric. The Church has never taught that the Holy Spirit is a personal entity.

Before all this discussion, the argument of the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and God’s composition was not an issue within the Church. Among other descriptions, the Holy Spirit could metaphorically be considered a type of God’s DNA, so to speak. It was who and what He was. It was how He could be infinite, all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and self-existent.

God is Spirit (John 4:24). That spiritual composition makes the Holy Spirit Divine. But that basic understanding took a sharp turn. Error was introduced. The purpose of the booklet as many of us understood it was highjacked.

What was added in our doctrinal discussions was that if we believe that God is “composed of Spirit,” then the Holy Spirit is greater than God and God is lesser because God needs the Holy Spirit to be God. All kinds of circular reasoning began to be introduced, and so the discussion rolled on to new levels of fallacy and intensified.

Now the argument shifted. Instead of being a spiritual essence reflecting and directing power, the Holy Spirit began to be espoused as a personality with a persona similar to the Father and Son. This was a core premise of standard form Trinitarism, a non-biblical teaching long rejected by the Church.

It is this aspect of the Nature of God that led to the monumental change. Within two years of the publishing of the introductory God Is booklet, the top leadership of the Worldwide Church of God proclaimed the church to be Trinitarian.

That move crossed a major line, and the fallout was instant and profound. As far as organizational change management initiatives are concerned, this one was a full-on disaster. The release of the booklet God Is... triggered a swift and negative response from a ministry alert that something was not right within the administration. What was not right was that major changes in direction were deviously disclosed to an unknown or too well-known theology.

In my role as a primary liaison between Church Administration and the U.S. field ministry, I was inundated with urgent inquiries: “Stop shaking the ground! Enough!” We had faced rumors and actual changes, and now this booklet was introducing, albeit without a final verdict, a new perspective on the Trinity.

Every month, our ministry sent a report to the Church Administration in which they could freely comment about matters on their minds. One of my duties was to read all these reports and take a sampling of about 30 of them. I would summarize the general comments and pass them to department managers. This provided insight into what was on the minds of our ministry, those entrusted to care for our spiritual flock.

The biggest and most vocal reaction I had ever gotten to anything was about the God Is... booklet, which became universally negative, fearful, and suspicious. Many in the ministry now felt that an elite at Headquarters was manipulating them. Ministers rightly demanded: Where were some of our senior and trusted long-time ministers? Their voices were not valued and subsequently not heard.

One particular month I took many of those reports and sent them out in a separate stack—just the God Is... responses.  There were about 60 of them. I wanted Joe Jr, to see to the growing level of unrest in the ministry. But he quickly dismissed the sources as mere troublemakers and ignorant.  “We need to teach them,” he added. I was stunned.

Tensions continued to flare. Looking back, I marvel at the instability of the day as theological tremors violently shook ministers and members alike. A catastrophe was unfolding right before the Church's seemingly clueless leadership.

On one occasion, when I was doing a week’s visit to the church’s Summer Camp in Orr, Minnesota, I decided to write Joe Jr, to whom I reported directly. I told him that if I was going to be his assistant and, in effect, his eyes and ears, he needed to know what was going on and what I was seeing and hearing. I told him straight out about the unrest in the Church because of the insensitive way in which the new theology was being rolled out. In the letter, I told him that if I was going to be honest, he needed to know the truth. The letter was lengthy in which I cited the various events, some of which I have recounted here.

Within 24 hours I received a letter from Joe that was longer than the one I sent him. He pointed out all the ways in which I didn’t understand the things that they were teaching the Church. He pointed out my shortcomings, yet he was kind as he always was. Joe assured me that I would be all right. Be patient, try to “understand” it. Be open-minded. Those who were upset and vocal about what was going on were just “emotional.”

Objections and complaints were arrogantly dismissed, attributed mostly as people simply being ignorant, no matter who they were. It could have been the original graduates of Ambassador College going back to 1951 who were taught personally by Herbert Armstrong. No one was exempt.

Church leadership under Mr. Tkach was determined to remake the Church against all odds. They thought that if they just kept after everyone with a barrage of papers, articles  sermons, and endless cajoling, they would eventually break through and prevail.


The End of the Doctrinal Team

Agenda items for the doctrinal committee were continually being introduced. As I have written previously, it was good to examine what we believed and why.

But, then came a highly confidential paper to our doctrinal committee. The paper took further bolder steps to bring personhood to the Holy Spirit and align it as co-equal with God the Father and the Son. Conversations in the doctrinal meetings were uncomfortable. It was becoming evident that there was a trajectory for this discussion with a landing zone and impact not certain. The momentum was unstoppable.

Dr. Don Ward, Ambassador College President, was assigned to research and author a short paper on John 17 explaining what Christ meant when He said, “The Father and I are one.” The passage was:  “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:  I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23)

Dr. Ward responded quickly with the answer we had known and believed:  While being separate entities, the Father and Jesus were unified in purpose and thought.

That’s not the answer that Mike Feazell wanted! He reacted sharply, stating that this was unacceptable. Furthermore, he said that it was no longer necessary for the doctrinal committee to hold in-person meetings. 

Email was a new process back then and not as common as it is today. However, face-to-face meetings were eliminated, and all communication would be done through this new form of electronic mail. That, in effect, disbanded the doctrinal committee as we knew it. There were no further meetings, and whatever other written communications there were, I was not part of them.


Sabbatarian video

Here is a story that is not commonly known. A very telling event occurred in the summer of 1994 when we sent Ambassador College students to Ukraine to work with Sabbath-keepers to teach English as a Second Language.

In the pre-Internet days, we learned of and communicated with Eastern European Sabbath-keepers. Here was a religious community of more than 10,000 people spanning Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania. We shared a similar understanding of the Sabbath Day, life after death, the Nature of God, and many other teachings. It was amazing.

At first, there was a sense of joy that we had found people of like faith in society just coming out of secretive, oppressive, godless Communism who could now practice their faith as freely as we could.

Ambassador Foundation, along with Ambassador College, initiated a major project in 1994: sending seven students on a summer Mission to teach English to these people. The students would live among them for a summer, learn their culture, and teach them English.

Ambassador Television also sent a video crew to produce a video showing our work with our Sabbatarian Christians.

The video was produced, and we viewed it in a staff meeting. It was very interesting because it showed people of diverse cultures working together and sharing their faith. The video would be made available to the entire church as part of a news release about church happenings.

After watching the video, Mike Feazell summarily and cavalierly announced that we were going to scrap it. He didn’t want the Church to see it; this is not where he wanted the Church to go.

Mike had a manner about him that didn’t allow anyone to challenge him, and no one did. It was obvious that he didn’t want public exposure to what we believed and practiced. The entire project involving travel and the filming production was unceremoniously killed in moments. I was appalled about how much power a few wielded, with everyone helplessly standing by. Here, we buried a story about people whose faith was repressed by Communism for decades, and now our faith was repressed in yet another manner.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the church left itself open to attack through the narrative style where theology was researched, fashioned, and formulated and the teaching style at Ambassador College. There was no statement of beliefs that formed a theological charter. That is core to why things were so vulnerable and crumbled so quickly. Toward the end, we developed and published a formal Statement of Beliefs that later became the foundation for the United Church of God Fundamental Beliefs, but it was too late back then. The doctrinal barn had been forcibly swept out.

As I look back, astonishingly, someone like Feazell and other once-second-tier managers could attend a nearby small theological Methodist (Wesleyan) institution with then-limited impact and scholarship (it was roughly the same size as Ambassador College in the 1970s and only began offering doctorate degrees in the 1990s), take a few survey courses toward a master’s degree, and subsequently use them as a framework for systemic annihilation of core beliefs. Had the church not reorganized its legal structure a few years earlier to protect itself from external attack, concentrating legal power within the hands of one man, this story would likely be far different.

As I stated at the beginning of this chapter, the purpose of recording this history for posterity is to help ensure that people will keep their eyes open and that it never happens again. God’s truth must be preserved.


Coming in the next chapter

Events were building to a flash point and confrontation. Also, as it became clear that broad reconciliation or co-existence of theological teachings would not be possible, thoughts were coming to mind about what to do. The next chapter speaks of a number of momentous events that led directly to the formation to the United Church of God.

Posted in Ground Zero.