XVI. The 1990s: Spiritual Abyss and Rays of Hope

The 1990s were generally not happy years for Sabbath-keepers. Many slipped into a spiritual doctrinal abyss by abandoning or watering down their former beliefs. And yet there were a few precious rays of hope.

Herbert W. Armstrong, the most famous Sabbath-keeping minister of the twentieth century, died in January of 1986. His successor, Joseph W. Tkach, instigated monumental doctrinal changes in the Worldwide Church of God. Scores of doctrinal teachings were changed, liberalized, and watered down. Among many other things, the Church accepted the Protestant doctrine of the Trinity, accepted "born again" theology, abandoned its former teaching of Anglo-Israel identity, and recognized the use of crosses as appropriate Christian symbols of worship. The Sabbath, Holy Days, and Abstaining from Unclean Meats were said to be optional, not mandated by Scripture. Those who insisted on observance of these former practices were excommunicated. Christmas and Easter celebrations were said to have value. These changes were vast, yet perhaps only 60-70% of the membership was motivated to leave the Worldwide Church. Tkach Senior died in 1995, and was succeeded by his son, Joe Tkach, Jr. Hank Hanegraff, of Christian Research Institute, led a helping hand to Tkach, Jr., and welcomed him into the Protestant fold. Both the Pasadena, California, headquarters and the empty Big Sandy, Texas, campus, were put up for sale.

The Worldwide Church of God, as we know it, ceased to exist, as it became thoroughly Protestant in doctrine. Some would say that Herbert W. Armstrong would turn over in his grave if he knew what the Tkachs' did to his Church. However, I was not alone in early spotting Joe Tkach, whom I knew well in 1973, as a supplanter who had no love for the Bible doctrines that the Church once taught. In 1972, Tkach told a friend of mine that he would replace Herbert Armstrong. Since he was a lowly local elder at the time, this seemed preposterous. Tkach was not a good speaker, not a good writer, but he was a personable man who knew how to utilize political power. Those who regret what Tkach did should not blame Tkach; they should blame other high-ranking ministers who did nothing.

Gerald Flurry in 1990s led a departure of "fake conservatives" from the Worldwide Church of God, who worshipped Herbert Armstrong’s (liberalized) teachings as of his death in 1986, and continued aberrant prophetic speculation. He lambasted the Worldwide Church of God as the "Laodicean Church." To be a member of Flurry’s Philadelphia Church of God, you had to believe that Herbert Armstrong was the end time Elijah. It is shocking that any Worldwide Church of God people would leave a church gone doctrinally off track for the "frying pan" of Flurry. Yet several thousand desperate people did just that. Flurry unabashedly published Armstrong's last book, Mystery of the Ages, which caused a copyright infringement lawsuit from the Worldwide Church, who wanted to suppress this work. It appeared that Flurry won his case on the grounds of religious freedom. Flurry had a couple of drunk driving problems, but this weakness apparently had no significant effect on his Church. In the late 1990s, a number of Flurry's congregations and elders left his group to form independent ministries.

Former Plain Truth writer William F. Dankenbring’s Triumph Prophetic Ministries had, in the late 1980s, created a stir in the Worldwide Church of God. His prophetic teachings, insistence on keeping Pentecost on Sivan 6 in line with Pharisaic Jews, plus keeping Passover on the 15th of Nisan, is still another departure and represents an extremist position among Worldwide Church of God splinter groups.

In early 1993, Roderick C. Meredith, one of the original Worldwide Church of God evangelists, broke with the Worldwide Church of God and established his own Global Church of God. Evangelists Raymond McNair, and later his brother Carl McNair, joined, along with numbers of former Worldwide Church ministers. Soon, there were dozens of congregations and thousands of members in the new group. Their World Ahead magazine, patterned after The Plain Truth, demonstrated the group’s adherence to much of Worldwide Church teaching prior to Armstrong’s death. However, Meredith and McNair continued to teach wide open divorce and remarriage, as Armstrong had from 1974 to his death in 1986. This prevented many doctrinal conservatives from joining the new group. But considering the alternatives, it appeared that Meredith would succeed in garnering many of those leaving the Worldwide Church of God because of its massive doctrinal liberalization. In late 1998, Raymond McNair, Larry Salyer, and others on the Global Board who did not like Meredith's leadership, decided to terminate their leader, Roderick Meredith. However, 85% or more of the Global membership followed Meredith to form the Living Church of God. Meredith, with Richard Ames, continued speaking on television, and publishing a Tomorrow's World magazine. David Pack, former Global minister, led some in another splinter group.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1995, hundreds of ministers and thousands of members left the Worldwide Church of God en masse, as a result of Tkach’s doctrinal changes, forming the United Church of God. It soon garnered 20,000 members and zoomed to the top among splinter groups. Although slow to define its doctrinal framework and launch out into media activities, the new group produced a classy Good News magazine, a number of booklets, and seemed to be poised for further growth. In the spring of 1998, however, United's leader, David Hulme, led about 1,000 members out of United to form his own Church of God, Monrovia, California, group. Hulme felt United was too loosely organized, and needed more top down authority, rather than being governed by ministerial committees. Les McCullough, former Chancellor of the Big Sandy campus, succeeded Hulme as United's leader. Shortly thereafter, almost to demonstrate that United did have Church Government, Dave Havir, pastor of the largest United congregation, in Big Sandy, Texas, was thrown out of United because he was too independent. The Big Sandy Church has incorporated before United was formed, and many members there resented the rough treatment of Havir. There seemed to be a continual frittering away of congregations from United, and their numbers appeared to be somewhat down from their peak, but hopefully were settling down as the 1990s ended.

Less well-known were two other ex-Worldwide Church groups, who concentrated quietly on feeding the flock with spiritual food. John Ritenbaugh of Charlotte, North Carolina, began his Church of The Great God in 1992. Fred Coulter of Hollister, California continued with his Christian Biblical Church of God which stemmed from his 1982 ouster from the Biblical Church of God, a 1979 offshoot from the Worldwide Church. Both Ritenbaugh and Coulter produced excellent tapes and helpful literature. Coulter’s excellent book, The Christian Passover. What Does It Mean? When Should It Be Observed — the 14th or the 15th? was published in 1993, and clearly presented arguments in favor of a 14th Passover.

Garner Ted Armstrong’s Church of God International, begun in 1978 when GTA was ousted from the Worldwide by his father, had mixed results. Because of an extraordinary donation, a new building and ministerial training school was constructed on Lake Palestine, Texas. However, numbers became disenchanted and left the CGI to start other groups. There was a mass exodus of over half of CGI’s membership in the mid-1990s due to renewed allegations of Garner Ted Armstrong’s sexual improprieties. A video of Ted's escapades with a masseuse was widely circulated, and was said to be played on national television. Eventually, the CGI Board acted like men and asked GTA to resign. He withdrew and formed yet another group, the Intercontinental Church of God. It appeared that Church of God splinter groups were running out of names.

The Church of God, The Eternal, led by Raymond Cole (an original Worldwide evangelist who left in 1975) and Bryce Clark, appeared to be barely holding its own, after losing several ministers and members in the early 1990s. Although much more conservative and closer to the original Worldwide Church of God teachings than any other splinter group, their presentation of doctrines lacked clarity and conviction. The group continued to have a number of members who were not enthusiastic about the church’s leadership and activities. Allegations of improprieties against Raymond Cole, plus some insisting that Thanksgiving and Mother's Day were pagan and should not be observed, led to a split in 1999. Bryce Clark and a good number of COGTE members and elders formed the Bethel Church of God.

Sacred Name groups appeared to be holding their own, and perhaps growing a bit. Jacob O. Meyer, head of the largest group, the Assemblies of Yahweh of Bethel, Pennsylvania, was on television. There were sacred name groups in Poland and other places in Eastern Europe. Jewish beliefs and practices (such as wearing the tallith) were emphasized by the Hawkins Sacred Name groups in Texas. The question of when to observe the Passover, on the 14th or the 15th, plagued the Sacred Name groups as it did many other Sabbath-keeping groups. A bright spot in the Sacred Name groups was Donald Mansager’s Yahweh’s New Covenant Assembly, of Kingdom City, Missouri. The YNCA’s quality magazine, Light, went to 5,200 subscribers. Some 160-180 attended the group’s Feast of Tabernacles in Missouri, and the group had an aggressive overseas outreach to assemblies in the Philippines and the West Indies.

Paul Woods, son-in-law of Martin Ogren, continued to lead the Seventh Day Church of God of Caldwell, Idaho. In 1993, some 147 people attended the group’s Feast of Tabernacles, which was held near Washougal, Washington. The group’s magazine, Herald of Truth, went to less than 1,000 subscribers. The Caldwell Group continued to be associated with a black church group in the Chicago area. The 1993 death of J.O. Nwakeafor, overseer in Nigeria, created a leadership vacuum, which the Caldwell Group sought to fill with an experienced native elder. Woods said that the church is struggling in America, as people do not want holiness in their lives. They rebel against a strong message against the sins of Sodom. The people are lax, and don’t want to be told their sins. There is a general falling away from the Truth. On a recent trip delivering Bibles to Mexico, Woods noted that Mexicans, who previously had been very receptive to the gospel, more so than rich Americans, had cooled somewhat, as they now want to be like the Americans. Numbers of Sabbath-keepers in Hyderabad, India, and south India, appeared to be increasing.

In the Boise valley of Idaho, the Caldwell Group was still fellowshipping occasionally with the Meridian Group, but the Denver Group church in Nampa had pulled out of regular fellowship with the others. Mike Ahlborn, grandson of Clair Ahlborn, was editor of the Meridian Group’s paper, Acts. Ron Burnham, son of Mark Burnham (now in his eighties), pastored the Meridian church. Although some Meridian churches had joined with Denver, it appeared that the Meridian Group was still functioning, although with reduced numbers. When their leading evangelist, Richard Cress, moved over to the Denver group, it appeared to take the wind out of the sails of the Meridian group.

In 1993, the Bible Sabbath Association’s magazine, The Sabbath Sentinel, underwent an improved format change under the leadership of its new editor, Sydney Cleveland. The BSA produced a 1994 and 1996 update to its Directory of Sabbath-Observing Groups. The BSA continued to be the most objective source of information for the searching Sabbath-keeper for information about different groups, although it suffered from a reduced membership list.

The Salem, West Virginia Group continued to exist, although its size was probably half or even less than half the 2,000 members claimed in 1960. The Jerusalem, Israel Group continued to publish The Mt. Zion Reporter. It appeared that its scope of operations was somewhat reduced from former years.

The Church of God (Seventh Day) Denver Group increased membership in the 1980s. This was augmented by six to eight of the leading ministers from the Meridian, Idaho group (including Roy Henderson, Larry Childers and the Palmer brothers) joining forces with Denver, along with about one hundred Meridian Group members. Calvin Burrell, President of the General Conference and leader of the Denver Group, was pleased that the Worldwide Church of God had made overtures to the Denver Group. After decades of rivalry and sometimes bitterness, Burrell reported that "the Cold War is over" between the two groups. He applauded most of the doctrinal changes in the Worldwide Church. Joseph Tkach, Jr., son of WWC leader Joseph Tkach (who died in 1995), attended the General Conference meeting of 1993, and forged friendly ties with the Denver ministry. Worldwide Church ministers were encouraged to develop cordial relationships with their respective local Church of God Seventh Day ministers, and some of them did just that.

As opposed to the 1980s, in the 1990s, the Church of God Denver Group was barely holding its own, still clinging to about 6,000 North American members. Like the Seventh Day Baptists, they are not a growing church. Although the Meridian Group continued, there was less partisanship between the groups, and more co-operation. The defunct Denver Group ministerial college at Stanberry formerly had up to twenty students. Its replacement, Summit School of Theology at Denver, usually had only five to ten students. Roy Marrs, nephew of Burt F. Marrs, became the editor of The Bible Advocate. Calvin Burrell moved to Houston, Texas, and later became editor. Whaid Rose, a Jamacan formerly from Brooklyn, an ex-SDA, became President of the General Conference. Whaid and others press an agenda for the Church of God (7th Day) similar to that of Joseph Tkach of the Worldwide. Some were pressing for acceptance of the Trinity, and abandonment of traditional Church of God, Seventh Day, doctrines, although there was some opposition to this plan.

In the eastern United States and lower Canada, about a dozen black Churches of God Seventh Day, mainly comprised of transplanted Jamaican Sabbath-keepers, worked together in a "Joint Church of God Fellowship," led by Lael Tikili. Some of these churches were independent, and others were affiliated with Meridian. Their enthusiastic style of worship prevented them from fully integrating with any American group.

Katherine Kiesz, wife and evangelistic companion of John Kiesz, died in 1993. John Kiesz died in the spring of 1996, the last of his breed of pioneer Church of God, Seventh Day, ministers. In 1995, L.I. Rodgers, one of the old timers in the Church of God, formerly of Greybull, Wyoming, died at the age of almost 100. Rodgers believed in keeping the Feast Days, and also taught that one in not born again until the resurrection. Although these doctrines were more in line with classical teachings of the Worldwide Church of God than the majority of beliefs in the Church of God (Seventh Day), his esteem among the Denver Group shows that such ideas have long been extant.

Few former Worldwide Church of God members seemed interested in the Church of God (Seventh Day). Calvin Burrell summed up his feeling of the lack of religious commitment of Sabbath-keepers in the 1990s when he told me that "the appetite for doctrine" was not very strong. As the Seventh Day Church of God approached the Twenty-First Century, there were some rays of hope. But, so many Sabbath-keepers had slipped into a doctrinal abyss, that only a strong hand from somewhere could possibly regather the lost sheep of the House of Israel.

The one bright spot appeared to be the springing up of many independent ministries, and extensive cooperation among Sabbath-keeping groups. In 1995, several United Church of God members formed The Friends of the Sabbath, and began holding Sabbath seminars, attended by keynote speaker Dr. Samuel Bacchiocchi, noted Seventh-day Adventist scholar, and speakers from numerous groups and independents, including Seventh Day Baptists and the Church of God, Seventh Day. The effect of these seminars was to expose Sabbath-keepers to others of like beliefs. Doctrinal liberalization appeared to be a common problem faced by all groups. Increased networking via these seminars, and the computer Internet, broke down many barriers between Sabbath-keepers.

As the year 2000 approached, there were scattered Sabbatarians in lifeboats. Independent groups appeared to be the most likely to abandon former beliefs and join the Catholic/Protestant juggernaut, although larger groups had plenty of liberals in their leadership ranks. If the 1980s were a time of spiritual depression for the Church of God, the 1990s were scarcely any better. The Church is aging, as its appeal to the public, and youth in particular, is not strong. By concentrating on the scattered pockets of sanity in a crazy world, Sabbatarians can maintain their focus on Jesus Christ, who is, really (in spite of liberalizing tendencies espoused by many), the same yesterday, today, and forever.

— written by Richard C. Nickels W


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