Nov 8, 2023

Worldwide Church of God dissolves, leaving replica splinter groups in its wake

Volume 38 No. 12

Religion Watch

While the Worldwide Church of God no longer exists after the schisms and scandals this new religious movement experienced in the 1980s and ’90s, its offshoots continue to preserve important features of the movement and show some growth, writes J. Gordon Melton in the Journal of CESNUR (September/October), published by the Center on New Religions in Italy. Once considered a “cult,” largely because of its heterodox teachings (such as denying the trinity) and connections to the British Israelite movement (which claims that the direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel are in the UK), the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) experienced a downward trajectory starting in the 1980s, mainly related to scandals involving its leader Garner Ted Armstrong. The WCG’s successor subsequently downplayed the church’s distinctive teachings, resulting in more schisms and defections, according to Melton. Moving the WCG in an evangelical Christian direction, most of its followers and leaders reacted by deserting the church for splinter groups that tried to preserve the original WCG teachings.

Tracking down offshoots like the Philadelphia Church of God, United Church of God, Church of God AWA, and Grace Communion International, Melton finds that they have each tried to recreate the WCG, even publishing large circulation magazines modeled after the movement’s original publication, The Plain Truth. Some of these groups, such as the Philadelphia Church of God, have sought to reissue founder Herbert W. Armstong’s book after it was rejected by the WCG, kicking off a huge legal battle. Among the splinter groups, the most liberal has been the Living Church, which is moving closer to mainstream evangelicalism. But the main life of the WCG is now carried by the four large splinter groups cited above, with each establishing a college for ministerial training, a large Internet presence, and issuing full-color magazines; the Philadelphia Church has even established a cultural foundation in the U.S. and an archeological institute in Israel. Melton concludes that each of the four groups started with a relatively small membership (in the 5,000 to 20,000 range) and that they have collectively grown to more than 100,000. While earlier dreams of rivaling such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses had to be shelved, the “substance of the pre-disruption era has been reconstituted and the churches that are still being nourished by Herbert W. Armstrong’s life and work appear to be more than able to carry its founder’s vision forward.”

(The Journal of CESNUR,




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