It's been an incredible pilgrimage for Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, California. He has followed in the footsteps of his courageous father in leading the church from what some considered to be a cult, out of the "fog" of legalism to a new-found freedom in Christ.
"The journey that we have made is much like the one that you will read about in the book of Acts," said Joseph Tkach, Jr., who succeeded his father after his death from colon cancer in 1995. "We moved from Jerusalem to Antioch. The same struggles of the early church. The same battles. In that sense we have recreated history."
The Worldwide Church of God, once known as the Radio Church of God, was founded in 1934 by "businessman prophet" Herbert W. Armstrong, who propagated his message through The Plain Truth magazine and The World Tomorrow radio and television programs. This salesman turned preacher had a wonderful way with words and soon generated a worldwide following who joined what Armstrong called the one true church."
But, ironically, it was Armstrong himself who actually started the astonishing turnaround from his own "inspired teachings" when he made a comment shortly before his death about changing the church's teaching on healing. "One of the things that Herbert Armstrong did say to my dad in some private moments before he died was that there were a few things that he taught that needed to be re-examined, specifically the issue of healing," said the Pastor General. "Herbert W. Armstrong had written a booklet stating an ideal situation that you go to God, get anointed, and you get healed. It's a promise, he said, and it was so idealized that going to a doctor was a lack of faith and even viewed as perhaps a sin by many in the church.
"And here was Mr. Armstrong, with heart problems, taking nitro glycerin pills. In fact, during the last seven years of his life, he was taking seventeen different medications. He would call my dad frequently when he was having some serious angina pains and my dad would pray for him, anoint him and, after this, his pain would calm down.
"One day my father said to him, 'You know, a lot of our ministers won't even anoint someone who's going to a doctor and here you are not only going to one, you're going to two and also taking seventeen medications.'
"So here was an issue and before he died, he said, 'That needs to be re-examined as probably some other things do, too.' Herbert Armstrong didn't give any details on what those were. He just said, 'You'll examine them and when the time comes, God will lead you.'"
Greg Albrecht, editor-in-chief of the Plain Truth, who had joined us for the interview, then explained, "There was no doctrinal re-examination or even questions of any kind under Herbert Armstrong, unless it came from his initiative. He believed that he alone set doctrine. He believed that he alone was the apostle and that the ministers and members should simply implement and follow his instructions. There was little chance for any kind of a doctrinal dialogue."
The founder of the Worldwide Church of God, who died shortly after making his comments about reexamining doctrine, could never have realized where his words were to lead. But following Armstrong's instructions, Joseph Tkach, Sr. asked an inner circle of senior ministers and scholars based at the world headquarters to first look at healing in the light of the Scriptures. He could have just left things as they were, for under his leadership, the church in 1988 reached its peak in income and members. There were 145,000 constituents and 800 congregations in about 100 countries. He could have chosen to leave well enough alone, but he knew that some action needed to be taken.
"We wrote a booklet explaining what the church had taught in the past was not completely accurate, and the reasons why, and that topic then became normalized," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "That caused a ripple throughout the whole denomination because people had to face the fact that Herbert W. Armstrong could be wrong about something. I would say that 95 percent of the membership knew that this was a biblical change and was right and accepted it wholeheartedly, but five percent didn't. They didn't leave, but they didn't like it, but the other 95 percent felt a ripple about that."
But then came other changes. Joseph Tkach, Jr. stated that some of Armstrong's beliefs that had come out of the "holiness movement of the 19th century" were then examined by several assistants to Mr. Tkach, Sr., some of whom came to be known as the "Gang of Four."
He went on, "We had rules that women shouldn't wear makeup or wear slacks and some of those kinds of strict items. Those things changed and we said it was now all right for women to use cosmetics, etc."
But then a pillar of the church's doctrine was looked at. "Herbert W. Armstrong had taught things that were at variance with what Scripture actually says, like being born again," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "He had said that we were not really born again until Christ returns. You were only conceived. He believed that everything that Christianity taught on this topic was wrong. He would say that they were right about the conversion experience, but you are not born again, you are only 'conceived.' Under Mr. Armstrong's leadership, we gave a great deal of importance to this issue."
"After we changed our view on 'born again,' we began to address other issues. The ripple effect was just a continuing succession of tremors each time a change would occur until finally in 1989, one minister left with a following of about 3,000 people. He said, 'These changes are wrong. Herbert Armstrong, the end-time apostle, was right on these things.' That was the first big split that we had had since 1978, when Garner Ted, Armstrong's son, went to Texas and started his own group. He took about 3,000 people with him."
The present Pastor General said that his father began to struggle with the fact that Herbert W. Armstrong had taught that they were the "only true church." His father felt that the Body of Christ had to be much larger than just their denomination. "The whole idea that God allows 99 percent of the earth's population to be deceived and less than 1 percent were the true believers, began to bother him," said Joseph Tkach, Jr.. "He'd read articles about missionaries giving their lives and he'd say, 'How can we say that we are the only true Christians? They have put their lives on the line for the Gospel.'
"My father became convinced that there were Christians in other churches and that there were authentic ministers in other denominations. But when he started to address that, that was a seismic wave that went through the church.
That recognition led to more scriptural study which resulted in more
A RUMOR RICH ENVIRONMENT
"By then we were in a rumor-rich environment," he continued. "It seemed as if one of us (the Gang of Four) would be seen reading a book about doctrine or biblical studies, the next rumor would be that, whatever it's topic was, that was what was going to change next."
The Pastor General recalled how this small group had been put in the role of answering the challenging questions to Armstrong's systematic theology. "We were getting questions that we had never addressed, challenges that we had never received before," said Joseph Tkach, Jr. "We would compare notes because we knew that we had to give one answer and that dynamic forced us together to talk. But what's interesting about it, I wasn't very comfortable doing that. I thought Mike (J. Michael Feazell now executive editor of the Plain Truth and Director of Church Administration) had almost gone off the deep end, because he shared some thoughts with me about his own study of the trinity and the new covenant.
"We started studying and began to see that we had been taught a bogus version of history. I can see now, by the way we explained things, we had been taking a few verses out of a larger context and we simply had allowed the Scripture to say or support what we wanted. So we began to put things back into the larger context. With that kind of experience, we began reaching out to each other after a certain point. We would take these questions and answers to my dad for final approval and he'd see that they were right and he would say, 'We've made three or four major changes already; every new change is like an earthquake.'
"He was very concerned because he saw that these new teachings were right and wanted everyone to know what the truth was, but he didn't want to do it so rapidly or just dump one change after another on people so that it destabilized them. But we never had an agenda that we devised. None of us were that insightful enough to see all of the ramifications."
He went on, "The trinity was the one issue that fissured and really did draw lines for people. As Mike Feazell said one time, growing up in our church he thought that 'false-pagan-trinity-doctrine' was one word, because you hardly heard the word 'trinity' in any other context. The only 'agenda' was that of honestly answering questions. The question would come, we would research it and would answer it and try to explain it.
We'd write articles, give sermons and teach. Some would read it and see that
it was correct. Others would read it and would fight it. All kinds of conspiracy
theories emerged. In a rumor-rich environment, every nuance gets interpreted.
There was all kinds of intrigue. Rumors and conspiracy theories made it all the
more difficult to articulate the truth. My dad, although he wanted things to go
slowly, didn't really have any control on how fast the changes occurred.
THE IMMENSITY OF THE ERRORS
"The immensity of the errors that were suddenly being realized by people became exceedingly stressful for my dad. The pace of our changes was being set, in effect, by the questions of our membership and the ministry. We couldn't then say, 'We're not going to answer your questions.' The questions were being asked from all over the country by both ministers and members. Our goal was to respond honestly and biblically."
"It was in December 1994 that Joseph Tkach, Sr. took an action that finally sealed the future of the church. "He gave a sermon in which he explained that we were no longer under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant, and he went through the ramifications of what that means," said his son. "Saturday, Sabbath keeping was no longer a test of fellowship. Clean and unclean meat was not a test of fellowship. Failure to give 10 percent of your gross earnings does not, he said, mean that you burn in the lake of fire and brimstone. He gave this sermon to our congregations in Atlanta, at our university campus in Texas, as well as at our headquarters congregation in Pasadena, and at a ministerial conference. The sermon was videotaped for our congregations worldwide, and it was published as well.
"That was the final straw, for not too long after, a big split occurred and the United Church of God formed. Initially, in the U.S. a group of 20,000 people left with them. Their numbers have fallen since then, but I understand they have about 13,000 in the States and about 20,000 worldwide. They, like all of our other splinter groups, have an Armstrong theology. They officially organized just a couple of months after that sermon."
Greg Albrecht then interjected by saying, "In a Martin Luther like way, Joseph Tkach, Sr. nailed the sermon to the door. That sermon, in December '94, was our acceptance of salvation by grace through faith. Up until that point there were quite a few people in our fellowship, pastors and members, who hoped that this small group of advisors that were influencing Mr. Tkach would somehow be taken out of the way, destroyed, die a premature death, or whatever, and Mr. Tkach would be led to his senses by God.
"But when he gave that sermon, there was no doubt in anyone's mind what he believed. He believed in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In the New Covenant. And at that point, people realized, 'Okay, this is where he is. This is where the church is going.'"
As this internal struggle was going on, just a few Worldwide Church of God watchers were becoming aware of the historic changes taking place. "Sometimes, a book would come out about the cults and it would contain our old doctrines and so we would contact them to update them on our present position and teaching, but that was the extent of our public presentation," said Michael Feazell.
Added Joseph, "I would have thought these Christian cult-watching groups should have recognized what was happening and extend a helping hand and be kind and gentle; instead some of them made the journey twice as difficult and added to the defections and dissidence that was occurring. Our credibility was impacted. A few cult-watching groups were constantly second guessing our sincerity, our authenticity and so they damaged our credibility, particularly to our own people."
I then asked Joseph how, in retrospect, he saw his father? "I see him as
courageous. I think he fulfilled what God had for him to do."
WHY KEEP THE NAME?
I wondered, then, why they had decided to continue to call themselves the Worldwide Church of God when their theology was now so different to that of the founder? "It's part of our identity," said Joseph. "That was one of the things it was rumored that we were going to change, so we said, 'No, we're not going to change it.' When you are registered under that name in every state and in 100 different countries, it's considerable work to change it.
"With regard to changing the name of the Plain Truth. We talked about it. We kicked around different thoughts and ideas, but just kept coming back to the fact that it is such a good name. We also realized that we would be finally telling the plain truth.
"Now actually a few of the people that left us at the time felt and have said, 'No, you guys are not the Worldwide Church of God. We're the Worldwide Church of God. Because the Worldwide Church of God is Herbert Armstrong and we are taking that with us. You guys have, in fact, hijacked the Worldwide Church of God and made it into just another Protestant church.' So the issue of changing the name for us was decided. Our name helps people understand that we, the Worldwide Church of God, are a living testimony that God has reformed us. We are a new church, transformed by Jesus. We are a testimony to the fact that God can do anything.
"Of the 110 to 120 splinter groups of the Worldwide Church of God since 1934, when Herbert Armstrong founded it, everyone of them teach a brand of Armstrongism. They may teach 1957 Armstrongism, or 1942 or 1978, but they all adhere to a snapshot of what Herbert Armstrong taught at a particular time in history. With one exception, the founding church, the Worldwide Church of God. We are fully orthodox and fully Christian. That's the irony.
"The one church that carries the name that Armstrong gave it is the one church that doesn't teach his errors. And for us, that shows the beauty of God's sovereignty."
He then revealed the stress he has been under in heading up the church. "The hate mail has been incredible at times from former members," he revealed. "It's died down some, but I've even received death threats. I generally get them here at the office, but once I got one at home and I had wanted to insulate my wife and kids from that kind of stuff."
I asked him if it would not have been easier to have shut your eyes and carry on as it had been in the days of Herbert Armstrong? "No, I couldn't have done that," he said.
He said that people like Hank Hanagraaf of the Christian Research Institute has been like "a breath of fresh air compared to all of the other cult watching groups." He added, "And he really doesn't view himself as a cult watching group and he really is different. He was singularly different." Tkach said that Ruth A. Tucker, a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical School, who has written two articles on the church for Christianity Today, and the staff of the graduate school of theology at Azuza Pacific University in Southern California, have also been very supportive. They were among the first to recognize that God was orchestrating the miraculous.
"I had been taking graduate studies there and they had immediately extended the right hand of fellowship and were extremely supportive, encouraging," explained Mike Feazell. "They had no qualms in giving us any help, especially in prayer, that we needed. They didn't push us at all or expect anything of us, but they wanted to help where we felt we needed it. They didn't worry about their reputation. They were just Christian brothers from the very beginning."
What did Joseph think that Herbert Armstrong would say if he were in this room and listening to this conversation? "I would like to think that he would have seen some of these errors," he said. "I know for sure he knew that his former teaching on healing was off. I would like to believe that he would have said, 'It's good that you made these changes and shame on all of those people who left.'"
I then asked Joseph, if he were face to face with leaders of the Jehovah Witnesses or the Mormons, what would he say to them? "I'd tell them that they need to reexamine some of the things that they are still teaching, like exaggerated truth claims and false history," he said. "I would challenge them to start on the road to reforming. However," he added, "I don't know whether they would listen."
What would be your message to the evangelical community? "Continue following the lead of the Holy Spirit to break down the denominational barriers and walls. I think we need to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. Some in the broader Christian community as well as some of our splinter groups have said we are making these changes just to be accepted by the evangelical community. We didn't make the changes to please any denomination or Christian leader or individual. We made them because God led us to do it; that we see it's right. It is quite humbling to say the people we have been calling 'pagans,' or 'deceived by the devil,' or 'falsely so-called Christians' for 50 years, were right about a lot of things."
What would you like to be inscribed on your tombstone? "He lived for Jesus" he said firmly.
Greg Albrecht added, "We struggle with our role. We wonder what we could have done better. But there is no textbook written giving step by step biblically based instruction about coming out of cultic teaching into the historic, orthodox Christian faith. We wish there had been a textbook. We thank God for his mercy and his grace. Some of our people are worried and they will say, 'Oh my, it's a shame that we've lost so many thousands of members.' The flip side of that is that it's a miracle that so any thousands of people have come to Christ in our fellowship. It's a miracle."
The Worldwide Church of God now has 700 congregations with about 75,000 members worldwide. The "World Tomorrow" is certainly looking different these days for the Worldwide Church of God. For they have gone from the fringe to the fold. Who says the age of miracles is over?
David Covington was a member of the WCG for 25 years and was in the full-time
ministry for five of those years. He was pastor of the Roanoke and Lynchburg,
Virginia, congregations and was a contributing writer to the WCG's Plain
Truth magazine. In May 1996, Covington resigned because, "after 19
months of addressing these issues with [the WCG's] administration, it became
apparent that I was actually enabling a sick system that does not desire genuine
change for Jesus."
Referring to pastor General Joe Tkach Jr., Mike Feazell, director of Church Administration, and Greg Albrecht, editor of The Plain Truth, Covington writes:
"... I am convinced you aren't even capable of seeing, much less addressing the genuine problems. I compare the 1996 WCG to a husband who used to beat his wife seven days a week and now has cut back to four. And, the wife is supposed to be satisfied with his progress! Worse still, he's holding seminars on domestic violence!"
Addressing why outside observers are reporting that genuine repentance has
taken place in the WCG, Covington points out, "These observers cannot
possibly understand what it is like to be a member of this church. They miss the
dynamics of this system which remains abusive."
Covington also points out continuing doctrinal problems: "The WCG still rejects the doctrine of eternal punishment, holds observances on the Jewish Sabbath and festivals ... and teaches as doctrine the debatable matter of post-mortem evangelization [i.e., those who are not saved in this life still have a chance to be saved in a future resurrection]. I would add that the abusive heretic, Herbert W. Armstrong, continues to be regarded as a minister of Jesus Christ." Covington also disputes the WCG's profit motive:
"I have long said that the WCG exists to perpetuate itself and profit its leaders. Observers might argue that this is not true of the new WCG as evidenced by the loss of members and income due to its doctrinal correction. But while employed by the WCG, I was told that the charges were being made to shed the cult image and to shift Plain Truth readership to a market more likely to donate. ... I know you [Tkach] say that you have lost members and income by the changes you have made. However, your power and prestige have not been abated. In fact, you have now had opportunity to speak before hundreds of denominational leaders, be interviewed on radio with James Kennedy and Hank Hanegraaff, obtain several book contracts, and that in addition to your planned radio program (and aforementioned pay increase). You did not possess anywhere near this kind of prominence before."
Covington concludes that he "... hope[s] that observers of the WCG will begin to see the complexity of the issue of an abusive cult becoming a healthy, orthodox church. It is not as simple as changing a few doctrines and mouthing some evangelical sounding phrases."
Doctrinal change has cost the church dearly in members and income. WCG officials
estimate that financial support plunged 35 percent in 1995, following a 10
percent drop in 1994. As a direct result, in 1995 the church laid off many of
its headquarters staff, cut circulation of its flagship Plain
Truth magazine, ended the prestigious performing arts series at its
acclaimed Ambassador Auditorium, sharply reduced subsidies to Ambassador
University, and sold off assets including a fleet of vehicles (among them
Tkach’s private jet and limousine).
expected 53,000 to take part in the 1995 Feast of Tabernacles, compared to
previous attendance of 83,000.
“I don’t feel
they’re making those changes to make more to become more popular,” said John
Trechak, editor and publisher of Ambassador
Report, a newsletter
heavily critical of the WCG. “I think it’s amazing that any religious
organization would be willing to take hits to its income and risk the livelihood
of its leaders.”
“We think it’s
finally bottomed out,” said Joseph Tkach, Jr., now Pastor General of the WCG.
“We think we’ve won the war, but there’s a cleanup operation taking
Mr. Covington, in a cover note to his resignation letter, identified himself as a pastor of the WCG in Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., and a writer for The Plain Truth until Saturday, May 11, which was also the date of the open letter.
WCG still dangerous
Mr. Covington said "some outsiders such as [cult watchers] Hank Hanegraaff and Ruth Tucker" believe the WCG has reversed course "and has become healthy. While its doctrinal statement is much closer to orthodoxy than ever, I feel there are major underlying dynamics that indicate its continuing danger to the Christian community."
Citing his credentials, Mr. Covington denied that he is a "disgruntled pastor." Rather, he was "a person favored by your administration and well acquainted with the significant problems of the WCG."
He took credit for facilitating 24 groups on "spiritual healing" for 600 WCG ministers and their wives over the past year and for writing the lead article in the May-June issue of The Plain Truth, "The Healing Ministry of Jesus." He said "spiritual abuse" is a continuing problem within the WCG organization.
Mr. Covington's dealings with the majority of WCG ministers and with Mr. Tkach, Mike Feazell, director of church administration, and Greg Albrecht, editor of The Plain Truth, "have led me to a painful conclusion: Your administration shows no willingness to address the core, most damaging aspects of the WCG system. As a result I must resign from the WCG ministry."
Mr. Covington is "encouraging WCG congregations to hold open forums to prayerfully consider local incorporation, local governance, and local maintenance of funds. Where that is not possible, I am encouraging members to leave and join healthy Christian churches where they can find help and healing."
He said he decided, after addressing his concerns with the Tkach administration over 19 months, that "it had became apparent that I was actually enabling a sick system that does not desire genuine change for Jesus."
He said he acknowledges the goals of Mr. Tkach and other church leaders, "yet you have implemented these changes through our historically abusive dynamics."
Mr. Covington likened "the 1996 WCG to a husband who used to beat his wife seven days a week and now has cut back to four. And the wife is supposed to be satisfied with his progress! Worse still, he's holding seminars on domestic violence!"
He informed Mr. Tkach that he had asked Ken Blue, author of the book Healing Spiritual Abuse, to list the symptoms that might point to a spiritually abusive group. Mr. Blue's response: "The first thing you look for is a hierarchy. In the New Testament we are all brothers. There are no number ones, twos and threes . . . The second thing I would look for is an emphasis on rules and regulations rather than on a relationship with Jesus."
Mr. Covington said those words appeared in The Plain Truth Dec. 20.
Mr. Covington continued: "The abusive organization has two major empowering dynamics, two legs which work independently: an authoritarian hierarchy and legalistic rules . . . Without addressing these fundamental structural issues, the doctrinal changes of the past five years seem merely cosmetic."
The recent Plain Truth writer said the magnitude of the WCG's doctrinal shift toward orthodoxy "has indeed led some outsiders to believe genuine repentance was taking place in this group," citing Mr. Hanegraaff and Dr. Tucker. "These observers cannot possibly understand what it is like to be a member of this church. They miss the dynamics of this system which remain abusive."
Nine WCG problems
Mr. Covington cited "nine fundamental problems" he feels the WCG must change to "become a healthy Christian church":
In a response to Mr. Covington's letter by the pastor general on the WCG's home page of the Internet, Mr. Tkach wrote, "The continuing doctrinal and organizational development of the Worldwide Church of God has come across as too fast for some members and ministers and too slow for others. We are sorry that David chose to leave during a period when the church is experiencing far-reaching change and spiritual growth of a historic magnitude."
Defending the WCG's hierarchy, Mr. Tkach referred to forms of church government, including congregational, presbyterian and episcopal. "This fellowship has always been episcopal, which is hierarchical, but . . . the church has been actively working toward broad changes in congregational empowerment."
Friday, June 14, 1996
Greg R. Albrecht
Worldwide Church of God
Pasadena, CA 91129
This open letter is in response to your May 31, 1996 reply to author Janis Hutchinson which was reprinted by the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) administration.
You know me to be a man of integrity who truly cares about people and is faithful to Jesus Christ. Your current May/June 1996 Plain Truth uses my credentials to bolster its article on Jesus' ministry of healing. You publicly stated at the Tulsa regional conference that you were proud of me as a person and Christian. But, now, after I have broached publicly some difficult issues, you imply my motivation is sinister, my claims completely false and conclude your letter with the following:
"Most, if not all, of Mr. Covington's statements and implications about church structure and finance are simply untrue. In many cases, the truth is the exact opposite of what is alleged or implied. We don't know where he got his information, but the fact is he spoke without the facts about matters he clearly knows nothing about" (p. 10).
No! It's just the opposite, and you know it. I am certainly not a Paul, nor do I consider you a Peter, but I do oppose your actions because you are clearly in the wrong. Your letter is permeated with hypocrisy, distortion and untruths, and I will prove it. You are not acting in line with the gospel, and before the church I beseech you to repent.
Greg, I have heard your testimony, and believe your heart is right. We have had numerous intimate discussions about the healing that comes through our Lord. I know you to be a sincere, born again believer. Your life has been transformed by the power of the gospel, of which we are not ashamed. The Holy Spirit has given you gifts to share the gospel. But this behavior is not in accordance with your identity in Christ. And, it is wrong!
I certainly don't speak to you as any kind of superior, but as your student. You are the one that has been my mentor. But I beseech you as a brother in Christ to be honest and tell the truth. You write that your response is not for public relations. Why then was the letter immediately reprinted and propagated without Hutchinson's knowledge? Why was it filled with numerous distortions and blatant falsehoods? Why did you not relate the numerous personal and private discussions you and I had on these issues beginning in February 1995 and how you never labeled me misinformed or deceitful on those occasions?
When we first talked for nearly an hour and a half over the telephone in February 1995 about some of the same issues from my resignation letter, you ended the call with heartfelt prayer. You mentioned to God that I had brought up some tough issues you didn't really want to address, but knew that the church had to. I tell the truth! That was your prayer.
In Pasadena, in August 1995 we had long discussions behind closed doors at your offices. I mentioned some of these same issues. I told you that if I could not faithfully preach Jesus Christ in this fellowship that I would do so somewhere else. I tell the truth! You later mentioned to me this struck you as my being very naive or your being hardhearted. But you mentioned it struck you because no other minister had said such a thing to you. This was well before you used me for conference workshops or Plain Truth articles. You have known my stance on these issues. Don't you dare give another impression. You know I have never misrepresented myself but have always been up front about my objections to our structure.
You and I discussed many of these issues on numerous occasions during the regional conferences. When I finally pleaded with you for some real answers in Portland, Oregon, in March 1996 you dodged my questions several times, but then concluded with the statement that you knew I was telling the truth. That is what you indeed said.
I do not intend to
respond point by point to your letter. I will demonstrate some of the blatantly
false and misleading statements you presented to Hutchinson and those who
received your reply. When Hutchinson responded to my resignation letter she
wanted to know if she had been lied to, deceived and if the administrators were
sincere. At that time, I bent over backward to explain to her how you were
sincere, trying to do your best, but misguided in approach. My resignation was
about abusive structure. But, in good conscience, after reading your reply to
her, I will no longer be able to give such excuses if you do not publicly
apologize for the blatant untruths in your letter. The response of the WCG to my
resignation letter has been cultic, slanderous and deceptive.
1. You wrote the following concerning my Worldwide Church of God status:
"Mr. Covington . . . effectively destroyed the church's plans to continue using him by suddenly and surprisingly resigning from the ministry and the church" (p. 2).
This is blatantly untrue. My resignation letter of May 11, 1996 stated: "As a result, I must resign from the full-time ministry" (p. 1). I did not resign either as a member of the Worldwide Church of God or as an ordained preaching elder, but as stated, from the full-time employ. I request you retract this unfounded statement.
In fact, you are the one member of the administration who contacted me after my resignation. Your short note informed me that the Plain Truth would not be publishing my pending articles. Then you concluded "I will pray that Jesus will provide you comfort and grace as you leave the employ of the Worldwide Church of God and that you will find the Rest that you need."
Your final reference to my finding the Rest (with a capital R, i.e. Hebrews 4) that I need seemed to me a veiled allusion to a lack of conversion. This from a person who made very strong statements in the past year about what he would say if anyone questioned his spirituality again. Your wife, Karen, was much less ambiguous. In her letter dated May 15, 1996 she referred to me as being like Judas Iscariot, self-centered, angry, intellectually vain, unbelievably immature and inexperienced, youthfully impatient and arrogant, a pouter, not having paid my dues, not knowing what spiritual abuse was, and being desirous of furthering my personal vanity (and all that in only two pages).
2. You wrote the following about letters refuting my complaints:
"We . . . have avoided the temptation of sending you a large file of letters and e-mail messages sent to Mr. Covington by members and ministers who are appalled by his actions" (p. 1).
While your administration may have avoided sending these letters to Hutchinson, someone gave into the "temptation" to send them both to my congregation in Roanoke, Virginia, to my previous congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, and to permit their posting on the unofficial Worldwide Church of God (WCG) publication, the Good News Grapevine, which goes to WCG members all over the world via the internet.
One current WCG pastor wrote to me concerning these comments (May 20, 1996): "First allow me to apologize for the hurtful and misguided responses I have read regarding your letter on the Good News Grapevine. Their responses are evidence to me of our abusive past and present, our tunnel vision regarding the work of Jesus, and the monumental task of recovery."
Some of the statements that have been shared by WCG administration through regional pastors Mark Cardona and Keith Brittain and on the Good News Grapevine are simply slanderous. Ambassador student Rose Lance is quoted in Good News Grapevine Update 150 dated May 15, 1996: "Do you feel the way you handled this was ethical? My brother said you have been thinking about leaving the ministry since you arrived in Roanoke." Greg, you know this to be a lie. I suppose some other administrator did as well because when a package of negative letters was passed out to the Roanoke congregation on May 25, 1996 the sentence about my having wanted to leave the ministry for a year was deleted. I now ask for a retraction from the Good News Grapevine, as well.
Other comments have impugned my character, true intentions, emotional stability, etc. Again, the letters propagated around the world on the Good News Grapevine were then edited and slanderous statements were removed by someone before the material was shared with my congregation.
WCG pastor Marty Davey wrote "David will find he can't always have his way in whatever `healthy' churches he bounces around among over the years" (GNG, Update #150). This was changed to "whatever churches he attends over the years." Please consider this a request for a GNG apology from the authors of these various statements, its editor, Ron Lohr, and the Worldwide Church of God. Mr. Lohr refuses to respond to my requests for him to send me copies of the recent updates, again, several of which contain personal attacks on me.
3. You wrote the following regarding Hutchinson's misunderstanding of my offer to the administration to go through my workshop:
"Mr. Covington's concept that his "two offers" to conduct workshops have been ignored is nothing short of surprising. . . " (p. 2)
You know full well Hutchinson misunderstood what I was referring to, and you clearly exploited that. On two different occasions I offered to facilitate the workshop I was giving to the ministry to your administration (Messrs. Tkach, Feazell, Albrecht, Rice, Schnarrenberger, Dick, Schnippert, Lapacka, Kelly, etc.). Both times there was simply no response for the need for the administrators to go through the workshop on a sensitive and healing approach to ministry that you were asking the ministers to go through. Feazell, Schnippert and Tkach were in the room when I offered this in Atlanta. The other offer was to you on cc:mail March 14, 1996. I wrote, "I also wanted to throw out to you the idea of having a workshop . . . for the headquarters personnel . . . . I know Joe, Mike, Bernie, Randy and Tom have not attended a workshop."
4. You wrote the following about the administration's support of my conference workshop:
"It is a simple fact that the administration provided and supported Mr. Covington's workshops even in the face of considerable resistance from numerous ministers and wives to Mr. Covington's approach and tactics during the workshop sessions" (p. 3).
I believe this statement is extremely misleading giving the impression that my workshops weren't effective or competently facilitated. This is a self-serving falsehood designed to diminish my credibility. I did not volunteer for this assignment; your administration chose me.
And, Hutchinson gave extensive input for these workshops. She wrote me the following on December 30, 1995, "Excellent! I read your handout and was impressed. If what you teach in your workshop is an indication of what will take place in the church, it is great and I know many will be blessed as a result." She also gave a number of meaningful suggestions that I implemented.
The following notes were written to me by various members of your administration. Why did you not mention any of these instead of giving such a false impression?
"I want to thank you for your good work at the Regional Conferences. The work that you have done on the two volumes of sermons that are available to the ministry is significant. And, I wanted to let you know it is much appreciated" (Joseph Tkach, December 21, 1995).
"I heard some wonderful comments about your sessions in Palm Springs, and am delighted that your ministry is touching hearts and minds among our own ministry" (Greg Albrecht, Plain Truth Editor-in-Chief, December 22, 1995).
"Hi Dave, Just wanted to take a moment out of answering 100 messages to send you another vote of confidence and again say how much I appreciate what you are doing at the conferences. I know you're getting some negative vibes, but I believe the fruit is good and important. Thanks for taking it on the chin and remaining professional, dignified, careful, and above all, committed. And don't forget that the positive vibes are far more than the negative ones. Don't be daunted. You are doing a great job with something that has to be done, and Joe and I appreciate it very much" (Mike Feazell, January 20, 1996).
"While in Pasadena a week ago, I had a fairly long conversation with Mike Feazell about the value of what you are doing and how grateful I am for your kindness, concern, and giftedness in this area. Mike holds you in very high regard and I personally felt the need to validate your contribution to the ministry and the church . . . . We have so many ministers that are living with emotional pain because of our past dysfunctional MO, and we all need the comfort that comes from brothers and sisters that understand and exercise the gift of encouragement, as you do" (Carn Catherwood, Church Administration, February 2, 1996).
"Ever since the Portland trip, Greg Albrecht has been very enthused about our involvement with you in producing a video on spiritual abuse" (Larry Omasta, Production Services, April 11, 1996).
"A suggestion I have is to start your discussion with the question of whether or not abuse has existed in the church. Obviously, many will say yes, and then you can move on to discuss it per se. . . . I have heard many good comments about your workshop, by the way" (Bernie Schnippert, January 14, 1996).
Tammy Tkach, Vicki Feazell, Susie Dick and Richard Rice have all participated in my workshop and given very positive feedback. The evaluations of the workshop by the ministry were also extremely positive. Question #1 on the evaluation form was "I found the workshop effective in developing skills for a ministry of healing to our members." Out of 399 respondents, only 4 persons marked "disagree" and 0 marked "strongly disagree." Eight persons marked "Don't know." 253 checked "strongly agree," while 134 marked "agree." These evaluations were anonymous. Your portrayal is false.
There were a very few individuals who were indeed very upset about the approach. The majority of them attended the Atlanta conference. Of the 12 persons who marked "don't know" or "disagree," 8 of them attended in Atlanta. Joseph Tkach sent me a blind copy of the following correspondence with one of those individuals:
"You asked that I provide biblical guidelines for 'dredging up' past injustices and to explain how 1 Peter 4:1319 and 1 Peter 2:19-23 fit into David Covington's approach .... You use the term `dredging up' when referring to David's small group session. I would be surprised to find David using such a term. Rather, he would ask people to share a painful event only if they feel safe doing so in the group. He also explains that no one is required to share anything unless they choose to do so. Therefore, your description of what is demanded is inaccurate .... David Covington's approach is to model emotional honesty in validating the emotions that people feel regarding the pain from past events that in many cases has never been acknowledged or discussed .... It is dishonest to pretend that suffering should just be accepted from fellow members and that we should behave as though these things did not happen. I hope and pray you can see this kind of reasoning is misguided" (Joseph Tkach to WCG pastor's wife, January 24, 1996).
5. You wrote the following concerning the church's income:
"It is simply untrue that the church headquarters somehow spends most of the money on itself and gives very little back to the churches" (p. 3).
Whoa!? Perhaps it is easy to say, but, it simply is not true! The administration has admitted it spends the following: $8 million annually for campus upkeep; $6 million for Ambassador University; $4 million for the Plain Truth magazine; $4 million proposed for the radio ministry; and there are still 300 employees working in Pasadena. On the other hand, there are a few more than 200 fulltime ministers in the field, and you pay for the hall rental of congregations. I believe it is a dishonest distortion to validate the above statement by saying money paid to headquarters employees actually goes to the local churches.
It was reported in the Worldwide News (March 12, 1996) that campus upkeep is $8 million per year. In the Pasadena employee meeting June 4, 1996 it was reported that Bernie Schnippert quoted the church's budget as $46 million. In your letter you mention to Hutchinson that "about 8 percent goes to maintain the HQ properties" (p. 4). $8 million is actually 17% of $46 million, more than twice what you quoted. It would appear you utilized the budget of 1995, not 1996, as the budget has been cut 50% in the past year, according to Bernie Schnippert (June 4, 1996 employee meeting).
If one simply adds up the millions devoted to the campus, Ambassador, Plain Truth, and radio, the result is $22 million. That is nearly half the reported budget of $46 million and that does not even include the 300 employees in Pasadena.
Despite these good intentions that the vast majority of the money flows to the local congregations, according to your letter the WCG last produced a financial statement in 1994. And, even then, you admit some difficulties for many in understanding the material produced in the Worldwide News. There are tremendous accounting personnel in Pasadena, as you mention, yet, there has been no financial accountability from the WCG for nearly 1 1/2 years?!? And, a statement by you that most of the money goes to local congregations is supposed to suffice. Where's the proof?
My wife's grandmother passed on to us the monthly financial report of her small town Baptist church with its listing of how each dollar of its funds were spent in the past 30 days. About 200 attend on any given Sunday, many of them are elderly, and it is not located in a wealthy area. Yet, they have their own building, employ a pastor at $35,000 per year (plus parsonage), minister of music $21,000 per year, pianist ($3,000), organist ($2,000), secretary ($7,000), janitor ($6,000), grass cutter ($875), and nursery workers ($4,000). They also give to a cooperative program, missions fund, hospital assistance, missions trips ($20,000), and upkeep their facility, building fund ($60,000), utilities ($20,000), etc., etc.
You also wrote the following:
"A greater percentage of our income probably goes to the direct and indirect support of local congregations than any time in our recent history" (p. 4).
Of course, that would not be difficult to accomplish. In 1990, there were some 1,200 employees in Pasadena. From my best recollection, upwards of 30 million dollars was spent on television, upwards of 30 million dollars was spent on two Ambassador campuses, upwards of 15 million dollars was spent on the Plain Truth. I don't know how many millions were spent by the Ambassador Foundation on its concert series, foreign projects and foreign assistance. And, there were millions spent on other items in the past as well. In my presence, both you and Norman Shoaf made a number of jokes about the extravagant Steuben crystal used as gifts in the past.
The congregations received a full-time pastor split between two churches and hall rental. Not hard to beat that record.
Again, you did not address current regional pastor Craig Bacheller's statement in January of 1995 that his congregation received 19 cents back for each $1 sent to Pasadena. The statement that your administration doesn't know where I got my information is, of course, completely false, since Mike Feazell was the one to whom Craig directed the comment.
6. You wrote the following about the consequences of a congregation incorporating:
"No, a local church congregation could not unilaterally decide to change the organization and governance of the church and expect to still retain its identity. Thus, if a local church were to incorporate for some reason, they would by this act be removing themselves from the Worldwide Church of God .... This is just common sense" (p. 4).
It may be common sense. But, once again, it is just not true. There are in fact WCG congregations that have locally incorporated and retained their identity in the Worldwide Church of God.
7. You wrote the following about the local congregations social event funds:
"Our churches already have local funds for purposes of their own social events, etc" (p. 5).
Let me clarify that these local funds are produced by the fundraising efforts of the congregations by selling fruit and/or candy, etc., above and beyond their tithes, festival savings, seven "holy day" offerings, etc. This was not made clear for Hutchinson.
8. You wrote the following with attached rumor distracting from the point I had made:
"Is the Pastor General "sole owner" of the corporation? If not, how is it set up?' No. The church is incorporated as a California religious non-profit corporation. The rumor circulated by some that Mr. Tkach owns all church property is ridiculous and untrue" (p. 7).
I would like to quote the WCG bylaws as presented in Ambassador Report (April 1995):
"2.2 `Corporate Governance" shall mean the Pastor General . . . . 2.3 `Ecclesiastical Decision' shall mean a decision that requires religious considerations. Such decision shall be within the sole and subjective discretion of the Corporate Governance [heretofore defined as the Pastor General], shall be conclusive and final .... 4.2 Only the Pastor General shall be empowered to call meetings of the Members of the Corporation . . . ."
"5.1 The Corporation's books, documents and records shall be deemed absolutely confidential and secret and no person shall have any right of access to or utilization of said information unless authorized or subsequently approved by an Ecclesiastical Decision [heretofore defined as solely administered by the Pastor General] . . . . "
"6.1 The governance of the corporation is, after the biblical example, hierarchical in form. Joseph W. Tkach shall hold the office of Pastor General of the Corporation and the office of Director and Chairman of the Board of Directors . . . . "
A lot of legalese. Yet, it would seem to even the casual uninformed observer that in a very real sense the Corporation of the WCG is the Pastor General, the "Corporate Governance, " the "Ecclesiastical Decision," namely, Joseph W. Tkach. Your letter indicates many, myself included, just wouldn't understand such matters. Oh, no. We understand all too well. That's the problem.
9. You wrote the following regarding the bylaws and the decision of the board, giving the distinct impression significant WCG power is vested in a board:
"The church, to my knowledge, has never published the bylaws .... It is a judgment the board must make about what should be confidential and what should not be. If they wish to publish the bylaws of the church at some future time, it will be their decision" (p. 7).
Again, from the alleged copy of the bylaws:
"6.2 The Pastor General shall have the sole power and authority to appoint and remove officers of the Corporation. He may exercise said power and authority at any time, with or without cause or notice. 6.3 The Pastor General shall have the sole power and authority to appoint and remove any singular member of the Board of Directors, or the entire Board of Directors of the Corporation. He may exercise said power and authority at any time, with or without cause or notice. . . " (ibid).
Thus, given Mr. Tkach can release the board in its entirety without cause or notice, it would appear it is a dummy board just as I described in my resignation letter from Toxic Faith:
"There may be a board of directors, . . . but when the authoritarian ruler picks them, he . . . picks people who are easily manipulated and easily fooled. What appears to be a board of accountability is a rubber-stamp group that merely gives credibility to the leader's moves .... Then when a practice is called into question such as an extremely high salary, the persecuting dictator justifies it by saying the board made the decision or approved it" (p. 169).
10. You wrote the following about WCG governmental structure:
"The bylaws simply delineate in legalese what everyone already knows-namely, that we are a hierarchically organized church, that the Pastor General is the chief governing officer, and that he, the board members and the officers are appointed rather than chosen by vote. Mr. Covington may or may not like the structure, which, by the way, was in place long before Mr. Tkach (Junior) assumed his role of Pastor General, but it is in place unless and until legally changed. Mr. Tkach cannot simply ignore our bylaws and do what Mr. Covington likes any more that the President of the United States can ignore the Constitution if Mr. Covington doesn't like it" (p. 7).
I believe the reference to the Constitution is extremely relevant, given our government's system of checks and balances with executive, legislative and judicial branches having oversight of one another. Charles Kennedy, professor emeritus of religion at Virginia Tech, wrote the following:
"A religious base to the government of the United States is in fact described in the Constitution, and it comes from a Christian theologian. John Calvin argued that, since all humans are sinners, they will want to advance their own selfish interests, not the interests of others. Therefore, a rational form of government requires a set of checks and balances against the selfish desires of individuals" (Roanoke Times, October 22, 1995).
It is, of course, very difficult for our country to modify the Constitution, though it can be done. Is that also the case for the Pastor General of the WCG? Are there any checks and balances to keep his administration from becoming tyrannical?
"Article 8.1 The Pastor General shall have the sole power and authority to amend or repeal these Bylaws" (ibid).
The statement was made that Mr. Tkach can no more ignore the bylaws than the President can ignore the Constitution. It would seem to be an incredibly dishonest and misleading analogy, especially if the Pastor General can change the Bylaws at his discretion, a power the United States would never extend to its President. The Declaration of Independence comes to mind.
11. You wrote the following about why a person might want to see the bylaws:
"Oftentimes the only reason a person wants to see confidential documents is to use them for their own sinister purposes. The church has an obligation not to allow people with harmful motives . . . to rifle through its files" (p. 7).
Wow! If this kind of classic spiritual abuse wasn't so devastating, it would be laughable. I grew up in the WCG. It has been my whole life. My career, family, friends, church, education, etc. were in this fellowship, and I was a successful pastor. Now, I must start all over again. I have not started my own church. I am unemployed, but my motives are sincere, and I have followed my convictions. You respected that about me until I stood up publicly against the corruption I observed in your own administration.
On the other hand, you present yourself as completely faithful and honest as you spend the $4-16 million dollars allotted your department. It's incredible that the cultic dynamics of WCG are so powerful that most cannot see through that facade. I pray the Holy Spirit will free those who have been so enslaved, for "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). But, I am impugned as having "sinister" motives. I quoted the following in my resignation letter, and it has come to pass:
"If the whistle-blowers reveal the group's problems to the outside world, the group will mobilize to discredit them. Sometimes trumped up counter-charges are aired, but most often the troublemaker's mental and emotional state is brought into question" (Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue, p. 75).
12. You wrote the following about the Pastor General's desires:
"The Pastor General has stated he wishes to move toward a more representative board structure, but has not decided exactly how this might be done. A fundamental change of this type should not and could not be made without serious deliberation . . . . Mr. Covington is not versed in these matters and we cannot be held to his uninformed timetable" (p. 8).
An M. Div. student and WCG member at a recognized seminary, who is "versed in these matters," turned in a paper discussing WCG authoritarian structure (May 13, 1996) prior to seeing my resignation. He sent the paper to me, and I quote portions from the first two paragraphs below:
"The church [Worldwide Church of God] maintains a hierarchical form of government¹ with no downward accountability, which almost invites the continuation of pastoral abuse. At the top is a 'pastor general,' Joseph Tkach, who with his late father, courageously began the very welcome, though painful, reform process. But Tkach, functioning as a kind of Protestant pope, still exercises nearly absolute power."
"Though apparently unwilling to publicly discuss questions about the legitimacy of the kind of authority he and his subordinates continue to wield, Tkach--along with most pastors and members of his church--realizes the WCG has been quite abusive."
13. You wrote the following about Mr. Tkach's raise:
"Mr. Tkach received a raise because, and ONLY because, he received a considerable promotion in his responsibilities by becoming Pastor General" (p. 8).
And, the reader is supposed to believe this was written for Hutchinson's benefit and not for public relations, as you wrote? In fact, it was reported that at the WCG special Pasadena employee meeting June 4, 1996 the question was asked by a WCG employee: "With the cutbacks many now have much more responsibility or an actual promotion, but no corresponding raise--why?" Hard to reconcile?!
In closing, Greg, you have confessed publicly on several occasions in the past year to be a recovering spiritual abuser, legalist and hypocrite, even when in a position of religious authority as the Dean of Students of Ambassador College. This year you sponsored workshops and gave a lecture because of the spiritual abuse the WCG has perpetrated. Now, you attack me personally and publicly and state the church has always been set up this authoritarian way, so it will continue to be. You are enabling and supporting spiritual abuse, and I call on you to stop the deception, publicly apologize for the false statements and accusations made against my person and stand up for the good of the membership whom Jesus loves.
Ken Blue writes that, "Spiritual abusers are curiously naive about the effects of their exploitation. They rarely intend to hurt their victims. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don't notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers" (pp. 12-13). But, Greg, I know you are not so deceived. I have seen the struggle in your own heart. Please, don't give in to peer pressure or self-interest. Take a stand for the cross!
The stand that you have taken thus far appears to be one for the WCG. The following quote is reported to be what you said in the June 4, 1996 Pasadena employee meeting: "God will not let this fail. We must not forget that the eyes of christendom are focused on our little group." I'm sorry; they are not. They are fixed on Jesus Hebrews 12:2). One of the hallmarks of an abusive group is more of a focus on the church than on Jesus. Even in the public response to my letter Mr. Tkach mentioned the historicity of the WCG changes. Is your goal of the success of the WCG more important than the truth? Is it worth the sacrifice of thousands of WCG members?
My resignation was definitely not about doctrine! It is about corruption and deceit. This is not about too fast or too slow. It is about being honest and putting the members of the WCG before organizational continuance. This is not about personal gain. You are the ones gaining from the ongoing abuse and deceit. And, unlike years past, I believe you know better!
Standing up for Jesus,