The following article was compiled with information submitted by CHRISTIANITY TODAY correspondent Joseph M. Hopkins.
More than a year has passed since the California attorney general placed Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God under state receivership. The takeover came after six dissident church members alleged that Armstrong and top aide Stanley Rader had “pilfered” millions of church dollars for their own use and sold properties at prices below market value.
Since then, Worldwide Church of God and state officials have argued inside and outside the courtroom. The state has based its case on a section of the state’s corporations code, which it interprets as giving the state authority to investigate nonprofit corporations, such as the WCG, whose funds are regarded as being held in the public trust. The state believes its oversight of such funds protects the public from charity ripoffs.
WCG lawyers, however, say the receivership violates the church’s First Amendment freedoms; they contend the church should have the power to spend its money as it pleases. If Armstrong wants to live lavishly and jet around the world, as some WCG members have complained, then that is the church’s business, not the state’s, they say.
The WCG case has gained national interest because some observers say it indicates a First Amendment threat to all U.S. churches, not just the Worldwide Church. Differences in theology have not prevented a number of religious groups from supporting the WCG in its appeal of the receivership. Groups sending letters to the California State Supreme Court in support of the WCG’s request for a hearing ranged from the National Association of Evangelicals to Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist groups also support the WCG on First Amendment grounds, as do the National Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union—two groups whom Armstrong has criticized strongly in past years.
The church has remained in state receivership, although no court-appointed receiver was physically present last month at church headquarters in Pasadena, California. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand (by declining to review) a California Supreme Court ruling that refused to dissolve the receivership. The church has had a number of appeals still pending in the state court, and most observers expect the case will eventually return to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The difficult question is that of reconciling religious freedom and protection of the public. Robert Toms, of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, told a reporter, “There has to be a balance. Society needs some protection from frauds and bunco artists, but religious liberty must be protected.”
Even if WCG lawyers are able to prove that churches aren’t covered by the state corporations law, more church-state problems in California may be coming. A new state law specifically citing nonprofit corporations with religious purposes as coming under the attorney general’s investigative authority took effect January 1.
In the meantime, Armstrong and his religious empire have functioned as vigorously as ever. Armstrong, 87, the former advertising man who built the WCG into an $80 million empire, called the receivership Satan’s “conspiracy” to destroy the church. (Armstrong regards the WCG as the only true church and himself as the only true interpreter of Scripture. Church doctrine emphasizes prophecy and Old Testament law and practices. It believes the 10 “lost tribes of Israel” remain to this day—Anglo-Saxons, for instance, being the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh.) Rader said the WCG is prospering despite the “Satanic attack.”
Rader, 47, reportedly the first in line as Armstrong’s successor, said any losses incurred by the church since imposition of the receivership have been offset by new support gained from publicity generated by the crisis. A number of disfellowshiped former church executives were included in the exodus, but Rader considers them “chaff” and says the WCG is stronger for being rid of the defectors.
According to the 1978 church financial report, the WCG showed a deficit of $4,927,000. The same report recorded Armstrong’s “annual basic compensation” as $200,000 plus expenses until and for the duration of his retirement. Rader, as “Treasurer of the Church and senior personal adviser to Mr. Armstrong,” was rewarded with a $25,000 salary increase to “approximately $200,000” plus expenses in January 1979.
The church’s Plain Truth magazine has a circulation of almost 2 million, down from a one time peak of 3 million. In its heyday, Armstrong’s broadcast, “The World Tomorrow,” emanated from more than 500 radio and television stations around the world. Today, coverage is about one-fourth that number. The aging Armstrong may not match the on-the-air charisma of his son Garner Ted, whom he replaced behind the church microphone 18 months ago.
Still, Armstrong remains vigorous. In October, he addressed via closed-circuit television 14 American sites of the WCG’s eight-day worldwide Feast of the Tabernacles. The 85-minute speech, excerpted for the “Today” show, squelched rumors that he is senile and in failing health.
The power struggle that ended with Garner Ted’s banishment from the church and its airwaves in June 1978 has benefited Rader. An Associated Press article called Rader “the crown prince” of the Armstrong empire. Garner Ted calls Rader the real power behind his father’s throne.
Garner Ted hasn’t done badly on his own, however. He established the Church of God, International, in Tyler, Texas. During its first 18 months of operation, the church has grown to include 80 congregations in 32 states, five Canadian provinces, England, France, and Australia. He has an outreach to North America and Europe via more than 40 radio and television stations.
The church’s 12-member Ministerial Council reads like a Who’s Who of deposed WCG top brass and includes three former heads of pastoral administration: David Antion, Ronald Dart, and Wayne Cole. Father Herbert responded to all of this in a recent Worldwide News article, saying that his son is in the grip of Satan: “God has only one Church … We are ‘the household of God.’ ”
The Soviet Union
Democracy versus Authority in Moscow
Correspondent Michael Rowe of Keston College in England filed this report from Moscow after attending the All-Union Congress of the Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists in the U.S.S.R.
Calls for greater democratic participation marked the forty-second congress of the Evangelical Christians and Baptists held in Moscow Baptist Church in December. The leadership seemed unprepared when a significant number of delegates (though still a minority when it came to a vote) felt that some decisions were being pushed through without the proper discussion.
During the opening session, dissident delegates succeeded in forcing a brief debate on the procedure for electing the top leadership. It was argued forcefully that the congress should have the right to elect the officers and executive committee of the union.
But the present system was reaffirmed by the congress. Delegates elect the so-called All-Union Council, which in turn chooses from its own members the president, general secretary, and other members of the executive committee.
(The All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, with an estimated 250,000 members, is the legal, or registered, church body. It contrasts with the illegal, or unregistered, Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists. The latter group, denomination of exiled Soviet Pastor Georgi Vins, has roughly 70,000 members, most of them young people. The two church bodies are at odds over the best way to function within a totalitarian state.)
Speeches by delegates, while mostly constructive, contained direct and indirect criticism of the leadership. There were calls for a greater emphasis on youth ministry, and even the distribution of part of a consignment of 20,000 Bibles did not stop numerous requests for more literature, especially in languages other than Russian. Some delegates openly shared their problems with local officials over acquisition or improvement of church premises.
The clearest indication of the spirit of democracy came during elections for the All-Union Council. These took up three sessions instead of the one planned. Candidates must receive a two-thirds vote to be elected. There was only one candidate for each elected position, so problems resulted when Pyotr Shatrov, hitherto the Pentecostal representative on the executive committee, failed to secure the necessary number of votes. The controversial Shatrov is distrusted by many Baptists and unregistered Pentecostals because of his apparent closeness to the state authorities. However, he is popular among Pentecostals within the Baptist Union because he has worked to strengthen their position.
The failure to elect Shatrov led to deadlock. Pentecostals threatened to walk out of the union if he was not reappointed. The situation was resolved only after the congress had formally ended. The Pentecostals finally agreed to be represented instead on the executive committee by Vladimir Glukhovsky, deputy superintendent minister in the Ukraine, and Dimitri Voznyuk, superintendent minister for the Ternopol Region in the Western Ukraine.
Both the All-Union Council and the executive committee have a high proportion of new members following the retirement of a number of elderly leaders and the increase in size of both bodies. The new executive committee in particular was seen by delegates as a marked improvement over the previous one, though some were disappointed that Alexei Bychkov was reappointed general secretary. Overall, the new executive committee can expect to enjoy the confidence of the membership, but it will have a difficult task balancing the desires and aspirations of the churches with limitations imposed by the Soviet authorities.
The World Methodist Council
Fiji: Jumping-off Place for Mission to the 80s
World Methodism launched a year-long series of evangelistic programs last month in Fiji, a multi-island nation located about 1,100 miles north of New Zealand. The people there responded more favorably to the latest evangelistic outreach than when the first English-speaking missionaries arrived on the islands.
In 1835 Wesleyan missionaries William Cross and David Cargill entered a culture reddened by cannibalism and cyclic tribal wars. They and later missionaries faced persecution. (The first missionaries to Fiji, native Tahitian Christians, were driven out in 1830.)
Once, Fijian warriors feasted on the bodies of their slain victims several feet away from the hut of missionary John Hunt. When his wife closed and blinded the windows to shut out the sight and smell, the chief—upset by this slight—threatened to kill the family, who might have become next course on the menu.
But the gospel took root in Fiji in the mid-nineteenth century. The Christian cause strengthened considerably in 1854 with the conversion of the fierce and influential chieftain Cakobau. Whole villages and islands (more than 320 islands comprise Fiji) chose to follow Christ.
Today most of the 270,000 native Fijians, or Melanesians, are at least nominal Christians. Most of these are Methodists, so it was appropriate, perhaps, that the sponsoring World Methodist Council should choose Fiji as the starting point of its “Mission to the 80s” program.
An estimated 30,000 persons attended an opening stadium rally in the capital city of Suva. In the presence of the governor general of Fiji, which became independent of Great Britain in 1970, a 1,000-voice choir presented special music and actors performed a dramatic pageant intended to show the impact of Christianity on personal and national life. Fijian preacher Daniel Mustapha emphasized the need for personal witness.
Opportunities are plenty for witness on Fiji. More than half of the population (300,000) are Indian and Hindu. Indians came to Fiji in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as indentured laborers for the sugar plantations. Today they comprise a large percentage of the Fijian business community, but they have less land and political power than the native Fijians. The two groups function almost as separate nations, and almost never intermarry.
Australian Alan Walker also spoke at the service in Suva. He declared war on spiritual and economic poverty, calling the latter one of the greatest social issues of this century. Walker, world director of Mission to the 80’s, helped coordinate the two-week Fijian campaign and other programs in the overall world evangelism program.
Walker had preached previously in Suva in 1978; he attracted an audience of 25,000, then the largest-ever religious gathering in Fiji. Churchmen invited him back, explaining partly why the WMC chose Fiji as the starting point for its missions program.
The local church will be the foundation for evangelistic outreach throughout Mission to the 80s, said Walker. The World Methodist Council has developed a variety of printed resource materials for the local churches: a Bible study series in several laguages, a book dealing with church growth, and a series of “pass-it-on” booklets for use in personal witnessing.
The council has planned projects during the coming year that include evangelistic meetings in 14 Australian cities; an International Christian Youth Conference in July in Cornwall, England; and 40 “New World Missioners” from six continents, who will preach in Washington, D.C., and in other U.S. cities.
The World Methodist Council is an association of 62 different Methodist or Methodist-related groups working in 90 countries. In existence since 1881, but organized formally in 1951, representatives of WMC member groups meet once every five years. Mission to the 80s crystallized at the last meeting in Dublin, Ireland, in 1976, when the 2,000 delegates (representing an estimated 50 million Methodists) adopted a five-year plan to reach as many people as possible who “have not received the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Methodists haven’t always agreed on how to approach evangelism: by verbal witness or social action. The present program seems to link both, calling for “a personal experience of God, private Hale integrity of living, and a radical challenge to the unjust structures of society.” American clergyman Joe Hale, who made his Christian commitment at a Billy Graham crusade, was elected WMC general secretary at the 1976 meeting, and has been directing council efforts from its world headquarters in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
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