'Grace Communion International' MUST Be Clear About Themselves and Their Past...

Robin Brace Takes a Look At 'Grace Communion International'

Still a Need For Greater Clarity

A s some will know, 'Grace Communion International' is the new name for the former 'Worldwide Church of God.' It is understandable that this group wished to re-brand themselves, but we really have to remember that this group (which I will mostly refer to either as GCI or WCG from now on), was the originator-group of Armstrongism, a most subversive (though not the most subversive) sub-Christian cult. Whilst not on the scale (numerically or influence-wise) of the more dangerous 'Latter-Day Saints,' 'The Moonies,' 'Jehovah's Witnesses' or 'Scientology,' the old armstrongist WCG cheerfully perverted Scripture, held its members in a vice-like and fear-based emotional grip - "there is no salvation outside of the Worldwide Church of God" - extracted large amounts of money from them through imposed tithing, and, quite frankly, wrecked several lives. Even now, the largest single group of individuals who come to UK Apologetics for help and advice continue to be former WCG members.

Radio Church of God (1933)... Worldwide Church of God (1968)... Grace Communion International (2012)

Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986), pictured around 1965 with his first wife Loma, founded the 'Radio Church of God' in 1933, so-called because the original intention was for it to be purely an American radio broadcasting organisation. In common with several cult/sect founders, advertising man Armstrong (by his own admission, biblically unstudied and only of an undetermined Christian background) took the Christian message - as delivered - and changed it into an idiosyncratic mix of his own design. Prophecy extremism to absurd levels, the exaltation of the seventh-day Sabbath and justification by works (rather than by faith) became the chief characteristics of what is now commonly called 'Armstrongism.' In general, the message was heavily legalistic with no real understanding of faith and grace; Jesus was accepted but forced to play 'second fiddle' to the law, indeed, 80% of the focus was always on the Old Testament. The message, of course, was largely derived from the Adventism which was already around but with a few other touches and twists added by Mr Armstrong himself, yet this man proclaimed himself to be "God's Apostle," insisting that his teachings were revealed to him directly from God. In amazing arrogance he also insisted that there was no salvation outside of the cult which he founded.

Armstrong, who may well have sincerely thought that he really was the Lord's only anointed (such is the human capacity for self-deception), died in 1986.

Enter one Joseph W. Tkach who took over the WCG, allowing himself to be titled 'pastor general' but wisely refusing the grandiose title of 'apostle.' An apparently incredibly honest man, Tkach started to overturn the many gross excesses and abuses of power of the WCG ministry (some of whom had lived in luxury while ordinary members sometimes struggled to make ends meet) and started to make doctrinal moves to place the organisation's teachings on the same path as evangelical Christianity. He died in 1995 to be replaced by his son Joseph Tkach Jr.

Now, of course, things have changed; 'Grace Communion International' are no longer 'armstrongist' and pure armstrongism can now only be located in the many WCG breakaway groups (too many to list here); the good news here is that most of these groups are tiny and of comparatively little influence. 'Grace Communion' has now moved on - full marks to them for that. Whilst many of us can celebrate that fact, it is surely incumbent upon them to admit their past, I mean truly openly. On the homepage of their new website I found the following introductory statement about themselves:

"We are a Christian denomination active in about 100 nations. We pursue our mission of living and sharing the gospel with a vision for multiplying all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people, in all kinds of places. On this website we tell our story, highlight our churches; and provide publications, media and other resources for discipling all age groups, developing existing churches and starting new churches."

Now some of that is very nice but it is misleading. I believe I am correct in saying that if one delved further into their website one would indeed find a few admissions about their past, but many will not do that and this opening, homepage statement about themselves is very deficient.

Let us look at this statement a little more closely:

"We are a Christian denomination..." 'Grace Communion' (like the WCG it sprang from) are not a Christian denomination, but it sounds nice. There is widespread agreement about who the Christian denominations are: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Methodism, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and so on. These are the Christian groups who have had to put up with the 'heat in the kitchen' of spreading the Gospel during this age of the Church, whether we speak of a thousand+ years or several hundred years. True, many would say - and I agree with them - that the age of denominationalism is now just about past, nevertheless, we must not confuse bone fide denominations with cults/sects which have (most admirably) reformed themselves. Only a few years ago the WCG could not even agree among themselves as to what the Gospel message actually is! I heard of one man who stated that, "Our membership of the 'Evangelical Alliance' proves our bone fide denominational status..." Of course it proves nothing of the sort as anybody who understands what the EA sets out to do (and what it cannot do) is aware.

Okay, let us pick something else out from this opening, introductory statement:

"We pursue our mission of living and sharing the gospel with a vision for multiplying all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people, in all kinds of places."

Now this is vague and nebulous to the point of being somewhat amusing. First of all, 'the Gospel of Jesus Christ' would be nicer, especially since we now live in an age where people feel able to pick and choose the variety of 'gospel' they want to follow; do not GCI wish to separate themselves from such selective "Christian belief"? Frankly, one needs to to tie down exactly what one means. Don't 'Grace Communion' care about this? They also state that their vision is in "...multiplying all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people, in all kinds of places." Huh? So is it now their policy that liberal theology, for example, is perfectly fine as long as a particular congregation should want it? What about the pernicious 'prosperity gospel'? Might that not be permissible within an umbrella of "all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people"? For sure, Herbert Armstrong originally taught one form of that, so it possibly still lurks there in the past.

So is any kind of theological aberration fine? In not firmly tying down the 'Gospel of Jesus Christ' with one or two supporting Scriptures, 'Grace Communion International' are laying themselves open to the charge they may be presumed to be a most theologically vague group and - in such a vague and vacuous atmosphere - heresy may yet again rear its head (as it has within the recent past of this group). Surely the need is not in "multiplying all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people.." but to establish the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, preach exactly that, and to enable those whom our Lord is calling to find a spiritual home in our present society's choppy seas.

One does not doubt that many within the re-modelled WCG are now quite sincere and some of their articles are now generally excellent, but strangely, this group still tends to miss the mark. Now, however, we briefly must turn to their new theological influence...

"Incarnational Trinitarian Theology"

Which form of theology is this? In speaking of "...all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people," GCI are showing their newest influence; sometimes loosely referred to by the above term, this form of theology is now supported and encouraged by GCI. This is, basically, the theology of Thomas Torrance (1913-2007), possibly the leading British theologian of the 20th century. We need to say more about Torrance here. He served for 27 years as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh in the University of Edinburgh and was a major ecumenical theologian. A translator and firm supporter of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, there is much good in Torrance but there are also very questionable areas. He supported the ecumenical movement (bringing churches together), though not the way it worked in his own time; his ecclesiology (understanding of 'church') was embracing of several denominational theologies and he sought for a theological synthesis between these. He himself drew heavily on Catholicism (both Roman and, especially Eastern Orthodox) and on the newer Reformed theology of Karl Barth (though was never fully in support of any one of these). For Torrance, Church was now everything and he tended to reject any division between evangelicals and liberals. All should be embraced as 'Church' as far as this undoubtedly well-studied man was concerned. Most evangelicals and biblical Christians will see compromises and acceptances of some aspects of worldliness in this influence. Evolution, for example, should not be opposed if some within the body of the church accept it; so the all-important thing to Torrance was 'Church' as a body on earth - that is, as a present group of institutions upon earth - far more than on the message of the Gospel itself. Ultimately, Torrance looked for synthesis, ecumenical union and cooperation between Christian groupings, unfortunately, the upholding of biblical doctrine as 'delivered to the saints' (see Jude 3-4) was seen as of less importance. So the Thomas Torrance approach would mean that one could indeed have "all kinds of churches for all kinds of people," but many of us would consider this to be a dangerously loose approach. If GCI now wish to embrace Torrance, they must be exceedingly careful about how it is done and which parts to embrace, in view of their highly troubled theological past.

The quoting of 'The Apostle's Creed' on their website, plus a legitimate, biblical, statement of faith would do more to encourage the view that this group really has moved on from all possibility of the re-emergence of heretical teachings, but vagueness can be dangerous, and even Torrance (though not everything he wrote was bad by any means) could yet prove to be a dubious influence on a group with no solid theological foundations.

Robin A. Brace. Easter Saturday, 2013.