Sunday 27 August 2006
The Apostolic Chair
This was the first editorial I wrote for the former AW website. It's been updated slightly for the blog, but essentially it dates to 2001. Sadly, five years downstream, it still seems just as relevant.
Americans elect their president every four years, and wisely limit any one incumbent to two terms. The same cautious approach is evident in the constitution of many churches. A church, like a nation, should not become the personal fiefdom of any individual, no matter how sincere or gifted they might be. Yet Pastor General Joe Tkach was appointed, not elected. Moreover he's already served a lengthy term as spiritual leader of the Worldwide Church of God, and apparently has "life tenure". Doesn't that sound more like a fringe cult than an evangelical denomination?
Almost all churches, including related movements like the Church of God (Seventh Day) and the United Church of God, have systems in place that hold their leaders accountable in some way to the membership. Church presidents serve a limited term. Not so the WCG. Joe Jr. (he apparently likes to be addressed as Doctor Tkach) holds the very same title and office that Herbert W. Armstrong held. And while Joe is happy to trash any number of church traditions and doctrines from the past, he shows no enthusiasm for seeking endorsement for his position as the church's top dog. No General Conference exists to provide a counterbalance to the Pastor General's authority. The power of the ministry has been shown to be severely limited: stand up to Joe and Co. and you're likely to become a "pastor without portfolio".
The traditional argument that the Pastor General is accountable solely to Christ won't wash. The theology on which that particular bit of self-deception was based has long since been swept away in the flood waters of change. Has Joe heard about "the priesthood of all believers"? His friends in the wider evangelical community certainly have. In practice, "accountable to Christ" means not accountable at all.
But it gets worse. Legally it appears that the Worldwide Church of God is still "privately owned", and Pastor General Tkach is "sole proprietor". Caught off guard in a radio interview some years ago (on the Larry Mantle "Airtalk" show), he was asked what would stop him from just taking the money and leaving. The only reply he could come up with was that his family would stop him.
While Tkach might deny that he "owns" the church, with the current legal structure of the organization the reality seems to be that he can hire and fire all board members at his personal discretion with absolutely no reason given. That's in writing. He can do whatever he wants with the corporation as long as it complies with government rules for a non-profit organization.
That things don't have to be this way was demonstrated some time ago by an independent Church of God congregation in Tulsa. The Journal, May 2001, reported the ordination of new pastor Ray Kurr. These Sabbatarian Christians have decided to bring the terminology of ministry into line with the service-oriented function originally intended.
Ray Kurr commented "I showed that a pastor does not get between members and Jesus Christ." The article continues "In other church groups... a pastor had to grant permission for the general membership to do many things. 'As a pastor I have no intentions to behave in such an oppressive manner. If the Holy Spirit is moving you to benefit other churches with special music or take a group of friends of the congregation to help at the local shelter, just do it.'"
Joe might regard the members of this local splinter group as "legalists" due to some of their doctrinal beliefs. Yet these people seem to have a fuller grasp of the freedom of the gospel than the top leadership in Glendora demonstrate. Here's what one member posted on a news board:
The ministers have their marching orders and you will see more and more of this coming up soon... the subject of "days" [to worship on] seems to show the most clearly how things are being done...
We were given the right [for local churches] to choose the days ourselves. No real restrictions were placed on us and I felt Wow! this is a real empowering of the people. Well, it hasn't turned out that way. The clear motive now is a complete move from our past traditions to mainstream ones. The people may have chosen to keep the older ones but the ministry are to move us along. So there really wasn't a choice after all.
This is not empowering the people... The level of control on the WCG members is not unlike the Roman Catholics or even the Mormons for that matter.
Empowering the people is a scary thing. It means that you will not be able to control everything the way you would like. But maybe what this produces is something wonderful for the people.
Here's what Michael Feazell said back in 1996 - a full decade ago - speaking to a conference of regional pastors.
"The church needs to be a priesthood of believers... It needs to be doing ministry. Everybody in the church has a stake in that--whether it's women, men, teens or children."
Stakeholders must have a voice. They are not powerless, passive observers.
The simple truth may well be that Joe doesn't trust the church he presumably serves. He won't risk relaxing the reins lest people come up with ideas he doesn't endorse. Perhaps Joe considers himself indispensable. Perhaps he's a control freak. Could it be that he is unwilling to lose his comfortable sinecure?
Pastor General Joe has been chief shepherd of his dwindling flock for far longer than is decent without, at the very least, endorsement from the membership. How long will he remain on his pontifical throne? Even the pope is elected by a college of cardinals! Will he be Pastor General for life - a religious version of Fidel Castro?
Michael Feazell wrote in the July 2001 Worldwide News:
"If your church is a spiritual detriment to you, then you should consider finding another one... When the leader of a church indicates that he is God’s unique messenger or special representative in comparison with other Christian ministers... then you have another example of a church that is spiritually detrimental to its members."
Wise words. But what about churches where the leaders have safely elevated themselves beyond the influence of the members? A church, for example, that permits only token involvement of it's members in governance at either local or denominational level? How can Feazell justify the office of Pastor General and the hierarchical structure of the church in light of his own statement?
Tkach is on record as saying: "This fellowship has always been Episcopal, which is hierarchical..." Perhaps so, though a case can be made that in the early years it preserved a more congregational structure. But even if true, this fellowship had always been Sabbatarian too, but that wasn't allowed to stand in the way of change. And if an "Episcopal" model is to be used, there would need to be a long hard look at the parliamentary procedures actually used by the groups like the Episcopal Church; procedures which do indeed involve representative bodies of lay members at all levels. The Worldwide Church of God is out on a limb when it claims "episcopacy" as some kind of precedent for leadership by a clique or self appointed oligarchy. It is no such thing.
Joe has been single-minded in his efforts to inveigle his way into the evangelical mainstream. But despite cuddling up to evangelical leaders, his leadership style arguably has more in common with Louis Farrakhan than Billy Graham.
They used to say in Pasadena that the only thing that would topple Herbert Armstrong from his throne would be the Second Coming.
Apparently some things don't change.