This article was originally published in the 1977 magazine issue of Ambassador Report with the title Homebreaking - Armstrong Style. It has been slightly abridged
Dean and Laurie (not their real names) were a happily married couple the day they began listening to the "World Tomorrow" broadcast. Through repeatedly hearing the Armstrong message and then reading the follow-up literature, they became convinced that the Armstrongs were honest and preaching "the truth." After deciding to become members of the Armstrong church, they wrote and asked to be baptized. They found, however, that before they could be granted church membership, they had to answer some very personal questions regarding their marital relationship.
Grueling Grilling. The interrogation they received from the ministerial counseling team got as direct as any police inquiry. With Dean at her side, Laurie had to unravel the facts surrounding her teenage "love life," courtship, and ultimate marriage to another man whom she had been married to for a short time before she met and married Dean. Though it was an extremely difficult, unbelievably embarrassing experience for her to recall her past, the ministers pursued into the delicate, the tender, the private - all in the name of God! The episode was as difficult for Dean to hear as it was for Laurie to relate.
Pointed ministerial questioning took up the entire evening. Obviously, Dean and Laurie were on the defensive, parrying darts of interrogation to which they were totally unaccustomed. Laurie had to go back and recall the sexual activities of her young life, revealing, in elaborate detail, delicate intimacies with other men. All of the better-forgotten past was dredged up for notes, comment, and ministerial judgment. The whole affair was prefaced by the ministerial warning not to shade the truth.
Over and over the whole story had to be repeated for clarity's sake, for proper emphasis, and to assure the certainty of the most important points. The couple was told that if they were thorough enough and accurate enough this ordeal would not have to be repeated. After all this the ministers conducted a complete and final summation, which, supposedly, put the whole matter in proper perspective.
Finally, it ended. The ministers counseled briefly with one another, nodded agreement, and gave their determination: "Laurie is 'bound' to her first husband." The decision was almost impossible to take. But, they were assured, God's judgment would prevail in the hearts of the converted. So before Dean and Laurie could be baptized into what they considered to be God's true church, they had to separate. They were told they were "living in sin" and that their only child was the product of an "adulterous union." It was decided that Laurie was to keep possession of their little boy and Dean was to move away. To refuse would have meant disallowance of baptism, church attendance, and fellowship. No greater decision had ever entered their lives.
Under the prevailing pressure and the implications of spiritual intimidation (the Great Tribulation, Gehenna fire, lost salvation, etc.), Dean and Laurie decided to separate and divorce, since Dean would be allowed to remarry. Armstrong doctrine considered that Dean had never yet been "legally" married. The one stipulation: Dean had to remarry within the Worldwide Church of God. Laurie was to remain unmarried for the remainder of her life, or as long as her first husband (unseen for years) remained alive. Strangely, it would have been perfectly right and proper, according to WCG teaching at that time, for Laurie to attempt to break up her first husband's current marriage and remarry him - in spite of their feelings for one another and in spite of the children involved. But to marry another would be sin, and to remain with Dean would likewise be sin.
Dean never remarried but remained single for five long years in abject agony, longing to be with his loving wife and child. The disillusionment and depression was awesome. Laurie was in constant misery, at times hoping that her first husband would meet with a fatal accident which would free her to reunite with Dean. The trauma continued until one day, five years later, a minister of the Worldwide Church of God discovered that a "slight" error in judgment had been made in their case and that they were "bound" to each other after all. The Worldwide Church of God offered no apology for its meddling interference, no regret for inflicted heartache and time lost, and no compassionate empathy over the error which forced them to live apart, in mental and emotional agony.
Nothing but their love for each other had preserved them until the Armstrongs' church government got around to quite matter of factly "correcting" the organizational mistake. Though together again, their relationship was damaged. Their marital lives were besmirched and sullied by the false teachings of a man - Herbert Armstrong - who loudly claims divine inspiration as "God's lone apostle today."
Case History Number Two: John and Joan. I shall never forget the case of John and Joan (not their real names). It was considered a borderline case and the local minister was unable to make a decision. As the district superintendent of the area I was called in to finalize a decision. After much deliberation and the arduous grilling of each individual, I had to decide that based on the doctrinal pronouncements of Herbert W. Armstrong, John was "bound" to a previous mate and that the present relationship was organizationally untenable.
John and Joan were a very attractive young couple with two lovely children. More than anything else, they wanted to become members of "God's true church." They were convinced that the Worldwide Church of God was that true church, so when I told them that, according to the church's teaching, they would have to separate, they limply acquiesced, but in deep sorrow. The agony of that moment haunts me to this very day. I can still visualize the young, vulnerable couple sobbing in each other's arms as their two children looked on in bewilderment and then joined their mommy and daddy in a prolonged crying session that seemed like it would last forever.
They decided to separate in order to join the church. Their lives were ruined, the family was shattered, the children were disoriented, and a loving foursome ended up in shambles. I imagine the damage is still running its course for all four of them. The Armstrong empire, however, keeps right on going, amassing its power and wealth without a worry or personal concern whatsoever for the lives of those it has injured down through the years.
Case History Number Three. I recall a case where a young man had been in the Armed Services during World War II and learned that he was about to be sent overseas. Fearing that he might not return, he hastily married the first girl that came along. They lived together all of three days before he left the country. During his three-year duty overseas, his young wife decided not to wait around and began dating others. The young serviceman ultimately received the traditional "Dear John" letter, and that was the last he ever heard from her.
Years later, when he decided to join the WCG, Herbert Armstrong's "theology" ruled that his first marriage was a "binding" one, and the now middle-aged man became obligated to live out the remainder of his life alone.
Case History Number Four: Buck Taylor. It was in the late 1960s that the now deceased Buck Taylor began to attend church, fully convinced that the Worldwide Church of God was the divine instrument of God on earth. He and his wife had both been married previously, and they now had three young children. Again, because of the Armstrongs' organizational structure for handling divorce and remarriage cases, I followed through on my official responsibilities. We put the couple through the "grueling-grilling" drama in the style dictated by the Church Administration Department. Both Buck and his wife had to unravel their past sex lives, going back many years, to the complete satisfaction of our question sheets. Things that each party had never known about the other were brought out in explicit detail. Discontent soon reigned, and the rapport they had once had was successfully broken. They were told to separate in order to obey God, which they did, in the midst of the greatest emotional trauma of their lives. Buck went on to gain church membership, living alone.
Many years later, in early 1973, after he had thoroughly studied the subject of divorce from the Bible's perspective, Buck rewrote his own case history with new understanding. He hoped to get an impartial review before the ministry, claiming that he had definitely defrauded his first wife, according to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He felt these scriptures proved his first marriage could never have been a "binding" one in the eyes of God, though the WCG had ruled otherwise. With great confidence he pursued his investigation, but the ministry - showing no concern for his suffering - was disinterested in resurrecting the matter. Finally, he was forced to write a personal letter to Herbert W. Armstrong, appealing for an "audience" and hearing in the light of his new understanding. When summoned into the "awesome" presence of his church leader, he naively felt privileged and believed it was for an objective review of his case history.
It wasn't so, nor was it ever intended as such. In typical "kangaroo-court" style, Armstrong began his accustomed tirade against Buck's pre-baptism sins, the need to "keep Israel's camp clean," and Korah-like rebellion against God's constituted church authority. The "dressing down" didn't take long, but it was effective. Not only was his case history completely ignored and disparaged, but without even understanding why, Buck Taylor was mercilessly "disfellowshipped" and banished from the Worldwide Church of God.
That very evening, Friday, April 13, 1973, Herbert W. Armstrong formally and arrogantly "marked" Buck Taylor from the pulpit before the Pasadena congregation, publicly revealing the sins committed by Buck long before his baptism. Buck was never the same. Totally disillusioned, depressed, discouraged, and despairing, he was broken as he had never been before.
Buck later became so disturbed over this vicious breach of privacy and trust that he filed an $11 million suit against Herbert Armstrong and the WCG. But before a decision was reached in the case Buck died from a heart attack brought on by the stress of the whole affair.
These four cases are by no means isolated instances. At Herbert Armstrong's Pasadena headquarters descriptive records of each and every visit and counseling are filed. There are thousands of such case histories on file. Pages and pages of information covering multitudinous questions had to be written up and sometimes taped to satisfy the Armstrongs' hierarchial line of divorce and remarriage judges. Since many eyes were to see the private disclosures of the intimate relations of various divorced individuals and their mates, they had to be formal, clear, perfectly typed, and have plenty of descriptive elaboration. There had to be many copies, meticulously exact and with enough amplification that a stranger 3,000 miles away, reading it for the first time, would be able to arrive at an Armstrong-like decision. Once typed, copies were sent to "headquarters," the area district superintendent, and various others.
Unquestionably, divorce and remarriage investigations and writeups were the most grueling, enervating task for the Armstrong ministry - the most time-consuming, wearying, and embarrassing. Many months, if not years, were needed for some decisions. One such report consumed fourteen typewritten, single-spaced pages, as taken from a battery of cassette tapes. And that particular writeup had to do with only one prior marriage. Multiple marriage cases usually required several separate sessions, each lasting several hours.
As an executive working directly in the Church Administration Department, I gained from the records an intimate overview of the complexity, agony, and intimidation extant throughout the Armstrong empire. In fact, in the Pasadena church district alone we ministers were personally working with no less than 300 victims of Herbert Armstrong's divorce doctrine.
But what was the cause of all this suffering?
The Original Teaching. The Worldwide Church's original doctrine on divorce was found in Herbert Armstrong's booklet Divorce and Remarriage. In the booklet and in sermons Herbert Armstrong proclaimed that once a marriage had been "bound" it could never be "unbound." For the Worldwide Church of God there was no such thing as divorce, either approved or allowed in the Bible. "You can look from one end of the Bible to the other," he would rave, "and you won't find any such thing as divorce." According to him there were simply no circumstances in which two people might divorce and eventually wind up matrimonially yoked to somebody else. There was, however, one small "loophole" in the doctrine. That loophole was centered around a statement Jesus made concerning "fornication" (porneia in the original Greek). In Matthew 19:9 and 5:32, Jesus said: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (KJV).
To Armstrong this statement showed that premarital sex was the only reason for two mates to "divorce." And this "divorce" was considered to be an annulment, even if the parties had been married for 60 years. Armstrong said the English word "fornication" had to refer to a sexual act committed prior to marriage. His explanation was that if an unmarried person had had sex relations prior to the wedding ceremony, he or she was obligated before God to explain the circumstances to the prospective mate. If such explanation was not forthcoming and it could be determined that the "injured" mate would have rejected the marriage in the first place, then the marriage was not considered "bound," but rather was considered to have been a fraud. The couple was said to have been living in an unyoked, unblessed, unapproved state for all their marital years. To Armstrong, God had never been in the marriage, the wedding ceremony had been a sham, and their marital lives had been fraudulent.
If one mate learned of premarital sex by the other mate after marriage, then the injured mate was obligated either to "put away" the other mate immediately or else to forgive him and remain with him. If a rejecting decision was not immediately forthcoming, Armstrong contended, then the marriage became binding in God's eyes. There could then be no disunion (outside of death), regardless of any subsequent circumstances.
First Doctrinal Committee. As a result of unrest in the church, a doctrinal committee was formed in early 1972, of which I was a member. I began to question this "sacred cow" doctrine. We began discussing the Greek word porneia which had been translated as "fornication" in the King James version. We learned through reputable scholars that porneia actually meant "sexual immorality" or "unchastity" and was translated as such in many New Testament versions of the Bible. Porneia included fornication, adultery, whoremongering, homosexuality, sodomy, bestiality, perversion, and the like. It could in no way be restricted to Armstrong's lone
definition of premarital sex.
This was a revolutionary discovery. It meant that divorce and remarriage was acceptable if one of the two mates had been previously guilty of, or was presently practicing, any one of the many forms of sexual immorality while married - not just "premarital sex" as Herbert claimed. Many of us were overjoyed at this revelation because this meant the church now could allow many couples that the church had previously split up to live together after all as husband and wife.
As the doctrinal committee began to unveil its findings and other new insights into established biblical truths, some Pasadena loyalists stealthily reported our discoveries to Herbert Armstrong, who, upon learning what was happening, summarily disbanded the committee. From the pulpit he shouted that he would research the entire divorce and remarriage doctrine and write a new, more up-to-date booklet, summarizing his inspired conclusions. From the erstwhile doctrinal committee he selected a few members who had unflaggingly supported his time-honored viewpoint to help research the issue.
The summer of 1973 evidenced many sermons built around his studies and the amassing of his manuscript. Vehement denunciations against "modernism," "liberalism," and "licentiousness" provided appropriate flak to dispel the hapless and disinterested church member from doing any personal research. Grave and fiery warnings went out against any minister who would arrogantly quest after "new truth" that God could only dispense from the "top down." Headquarters evangelists dutifully warned against lay-member and ministerial arrogation of doctrinal duties and responsibilities beyond their range of knowledge. The strong-arm word was: "lay off."
Herbert Armstrong personally warned all of his ministers at each of the Feast of Tabernacles sites (fall 1973) that they were not to delve into, study, research or discuss church doctrine among themselves. Questions were being engendered, and questions, he said, were of the Devil. Elders were to perform their headquarters-oriented duties and disseminate only what had been taught them at Ambassador College. At the Feast of Trumpets' services in Pasadena, Garner Ted Armstrong told ministers not to discuss or entertain doctrinal questions. "Any minister who dares to bring up such doctrinal issues," he bellowed wildly, "will be defrocked before the week is out." Later, in Pasadena, Herbert Armstrong announced that the "committee" was unanimous in its conclusions - there being only one person with "very minor objections." With his past interpretation forcibly sustained, divorce and remarriage became a closed issue, and anyone who disagreed with him was said to have disagreed with God and should "get out." Such was the openness, the Christian attitude, the spirit of joy, and the atmosphere of love around Ambassador College during the last half of 1973.
New Booklet. In October, the completed divorce and remarriage manuscript was secretly sent to press, avoiding all normal editing channels. By early November the new booklet, Marriage and Divorce, was finally released. In it Herbert Armstrong took a doctrinal position with which no recognized Bible scholar in the world today agrees. The real essence of this booklet's argument can be found on page 35:
"The Church of God for 40 years has said it [porneia] refers to an illicit sex act committed PRIOR to being bound in marriage...."
What authority other than "the church" did Herbert quote to substantiate or prove his personal concept of marital fraud? Absolutely none. He simply stated with self-proclaimed authority, "The Church has maintained that, the husband having been unaware of it [illicit sex by his mate] until after the marriage ceremony...a fraud was committed. And God, knowing of this fraud DID NOT BIND them " (p. 35).
In Herbert's mind he had been right all along, and his old foundational divorce and remarriage booklet was vindicated. He bellowed from the pulpit, "God would not allow his apostle to be wrong on such an important issue for over forty years." Here finally was the inspired truth God had revealed and this, Herbert W. Armstrong promised, would never be altered. And he admonished with growling gravity, "If any of you don't like it, or won't accept it, you can get out!"
On November 13, 1973, I resigned from my church position as a direct result of this booklet. In a private conversation with Garner Ted Armstrong and Robert Kuhn on November 27, 1973, I made it abundantly clear how I felt about the New Testament concept versus Herbert Armstrong's concept of divorce and remarriage. Ted said that he had known for over ten years that his father's teaching on the subject was wrong. He had even approached his father about his own marriage (at one time he had believed he was not bound to his wife), but his father's strong arm prevailed.
For over ten years Ted had continued to preach and teach his father's errant view on divorce, despite the fact that he knew it was in error and had already destroyed hundreds of church families. In all probability Ted would still be teaching it today had his father not been coerced into making drastic changes in the doctrine.
History Making 1974. In early 1974 pressure began to mount regarding many doctrines of the church. Divorce and remarriage was at the top of the list. Over 40 ministers and thousands of members left during the first three months. It became alarmingly apparent to the Pasadena leadership that unless something dramatic was done several thousand more members and ministers would leave the church and income would begin to drop dramatically.
Yielding to pleas from several top executives, Herbert Armstrong quietly and surreptitiously discontinued publishing the much touted and publicized booklet (Marriage and Divorce). All remaining copies were recalled at headquarters, and the work which purported to represent God's final authority and official church doctrine on divorce was no more. The booklet that was conceived of, nurtured, and given birth to by Herbert was officially canned. At this point, however, the doctrine still remained unchanged.
Because of the uproar over several church doctrines including divorce and remarriage, Herbert Armstrong finally called a special worldwide conference in Pasadena in May 1974. Traditionally all ministerial conferences were held in January, but because there was such discontent, Herbert was prevailed upon to call this special conference, which he opened by suddenly changing his life-long position on divorce and remarriage.
Only days before the conference opened Dr. Herman L. Hoeh had introduced to Herbert the "new pivotal understanding" that God does not "bind" all marriages. This was the "key" to the limited doctrinal change. Herbert, however, continued to stubbornly cling to his old definition of porneia for nearly two additional years.
There had been no new special committee formed to research the traumatic subject. Outside scholarship had not been invited, nor was it wanted. The Foundation for Biblical Research, a research group founded in 1973 by Dr. Ernest L. Martin, former head of Ambassador College's department of theology, had already published a booklet entitled Marriage and the Bible months before, and both Armstrongs proudly claimed that neither had read its contents. Ironically Dr. Martin's booklet discusses the Worldwide Church's new "key" in the first five pages. Asking for no discussion on the matter, Armstrong simply sat in his special (papal?) chair inside his own lavish auditorium and announced the gargantuan change as though the damages of the past had been inflicted by someone else and he had been called in at the last minute to "straighten things out." It was as though his only responsibility had been to transmit "inspired" truth from God and that he had never had an active part in formulating any of the original doctrine. The WCG's merciless, erroneous policy on divorce and remarriage ended within one-half hour from the commencement of the conference.
Though decidedly in the dark for the most part, his ministry readily and dutifully accepted his revelatory pontification, perhaps because they knew that any such change would inevitably free thousands who had been living in, were living in, and would have to live in bondage under Armstrong's original doctrine.
Let me state emphatically from personal, firsthand experience of over 18 years in that organization that there would have been no change whatsoever on divorce and remarriage or any other doctrine of that church if there had not been profound and extensive pressure on the Armstrongs to alter it. Any considerable loss of ministers and members meant a loss of money, and it is money which makes their organization go round. It was their obsessive fear of mass defections and resultant lost tithes which brought about the doctrinal change in divorce and remarriage and nothing else!
DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE COMMENTS
"I have never read Bob Sarrett's paper on divorce and remarriage. I refused to read it because I wanted to look my father in the eye and say, `Dad, I never ever read his paper.' And I don't have great big agonizing questions on the subject [of divorce and remarriage] at all!"
Garner Ted Armstrong. Ministerial Conference, 1/4/74
[Editor: Robert Sarrett, a WCG layman, wrote Herbert Armstrong a letter in 1974 mentioning a number of doctrinal points that he had written up and numerous others he would like to write up]
"Nobody is denying that there are people out here that are practically close to suicide because of divorce and remarriage situations."
Garner Ted Armstrong. Ministerial Meeting, 3/7/74
"You know, I knew the truth about porneia over six years ago, and it was formally and finally approved last week by Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong. And I have never preached it or taught it or exacerbated it or tried to divide the Work over it in the history of all that time."
Garner Ted Armstrong. Sermon in England, 1/17/76
As it is, Herbert Armstrong has never publicly admitted his personal error, apologized for the anguish he caused, made restitution to the injured parties, or offered compensation of any kind. It just isn't built into his life-style or character to do so. Herbert felt he shouldn't be blamed for teaching gross error on divorce and remarriage because God never brought the errors to his attention. Instead of apologizing for breaking up happy marriages, Herbert praised those who steadfastly followed his erroneous teachings and condemned those who dropped by the wayside to follow the truth. Obedience is the greatest virtue in the Worldwide Church of God - especially when the church teaches error, because it then becomes a "spiritual trial" that members are obligated to endure:
"Brethren, this very experience ought to teach all that loyalty to God and to His Church must always be placed first, over supposed or real wrongs or personal grievances.... I want all of you to know...how much I and all loyal ministers appreciate deeply from the heart the faithfulness of those of you who have endured this anguish in order to be obedient to our God"
(Herbert Armstrong, member letter, May 14, 1974, page 11).
Herbert feels that loyalty to him must be placed first over real wrongs. Even when his teachings are destructively in error he believes members must endure personal anguish in order to be obedient to him. To do otherwise is "rebellion," and in the Worldwide Church of God rebellion is the most cardinal sin of all.
The "New, Improved" Doctrine. The Worldwide Church of God membership was led to believe that the "new, improved" divorce and remarriage doctrine announced at the May 1974 conference was at last accurate and conclusive. Not so! The definition of porneia went totally undiscussed at the May conference because everyone knew that Herbert would not alter his view on its meaning. In fact, Herbert still felt he was right about porneia and that the scholars were completely wrong in their explanations of God's laws on divorce and remarriage:
At this time Garner Ted outwardly appeared to agree with his father on the meaning of porneia. On the last day of the conference Ted answered written questions regarding the subject of divorce and remarriage in the auditorium. When he came to the question "What is the meaning of porneia?", he responded, not with the truth as he knew it, but with the cryptic remark "Look it up." In the 1976 ministerial conference, Ted openly prided himself over the fact that, when faced with the choice of teaching what he knew the Bible said about divorce and perpetuating false doctrine, he chose the latter.
"And I knew literally years before the decision was ever made what the real full meaning of the word porneia was! I had studied it on my own. No one heard me making any attacks against the church, against my father, or writing contrary material. What I wrote is still in my file in private."
It's amazing a person could actually be proud of having kept the truth about a Bible doctrine hidden for years-especially when knowledge of that truth could have prevented so much misery in people's lives. I suppose if one wishes to know exactly what Ted really believes about the Bible, that person should read the papers buried in his files-because after reading the statement by Ted quoted above, one can never be sure he really believes what he preaches.
It wasn't until January 1976 that Herbert conceded privately that he was wrong on the meaning of porneia and that the scholars had been right all along. Nevertheless he has made no official statement to the church correcting the false teaching he perpetuated at the May 1974 ministerial conference.
Church Teaching Today. To be as objective and fair as possible, I recently contacted a prominent Worldwide Church scholar to learn firsthand about the WCG's current teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage. After a three-hour interview, the scholar admitted that he honestly didn't know what the official teaching of the church was on divorce. He said there were many ideas, theories, and feelings afloat, but not enough unanimity to foster a concise booklet to replace Herbert Armstrong's 1973 absurdity. However, I was able to gain the following general conclusions while in Pasadena:
(1) Porneia now means "sexual unchastity," and this is grounds for divorce and remarriage.
(2) Desertion by a mate (I Cor. 7) is grounds for divorce and remarriage.
(3) Departure of an unbelieving mate (I Cor. 7) is grounds for divorce and remarriage.
(4) Fraud or premarital sex constitutes grounds for divorce and remarriage.
Ironically much of this is similar to Guy Duty's book, Divorce and Remarriage: A Christian View. This book was much criticized from the pulpit during the summer of 1973. As it turned out, Guy Duty really did have the Christian view, whereas Herbert Armstrong was forced to alter his "inspired position." Without so much as an apology or regret, the Worldwide Church of God's view on divorce and remarriage is now similar to that which Guy Duty arrived at decades ago. One wonders if Duty's book is still banned on the Ambassador College campus as it was in 1973.
A New View. Very recently Herbert W. Armstrong, age 85, remarried in Tucson, Arizona. His new wife, the former Mrs. Ramona Martin, is 38. She has been married previously and her former husband is still alive. Evidently Mr. Armstrong has forgotten his two noted works on the subject of divorce.
With Herbert and Ramona there was no ministerial interrogation, no delicately private revelations, no clerical intimidation, no reviewings of any divorce and remarriage booklet, no prohibitions against cohabitation, no threatenings about Korah's rebellion, no demands for separation, no visiting cards, and no divorce and remarriage writeup. These things were for the "other guy." And after all, times do change, don't they?