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A Tribute to the Leopard:

The New Worldwide Church of God

by Jesse Ancona

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots: then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." (Jeremiah 13:23, KJV)

The Issue is Raised

A friend was discussing with me how troubled he was over a person from "the New Worldwide" who was so upset over hearing the Armstrongs discussed that he threatened my friend if he did it again. Of course, my friend told him to go ahead, he refused to be blackmailed. But he could not understand why someone in the "new" Worldwide would care about the old founders who taught things so different from what was being done today. So we discussed the psychology of this, and it became obvious that, while I had mentioned these things in passing, it would be helpful to focus on how this phenomenon works, because it is, of course, another mark of how a cult operates.

When a Member Lashes Out

To begin with, a frenzied anger over any slight show of disapproval or disagreement is itself one sign a person has a cult mentality. Cult members cannot bear to listen to any criticism of the group from which they obtain their identity, and they react as though you were a dangerous threat – and their reaction would only make sense if you were being violent or verbally abusive. This inappropriately exaggerated anger and defensiveness is recognized by anticult educators as classic cult behaviour.1

But what causes this anger? To begin with, the group becomes the person’s identity, so any disapproval of it becomes an attack on the person. It is like attacking someone’s heritage, their race, their family, their nationality, their mother, and their flag – all rolled into one. And then, with the volume turned up. A hidden cause of this anger is fear. The cult member is terrified that something you say might make them change their mind, and put their standing with the group in jeopardy. Every cult member has some doubts, and these are vigorously repressed. To bring up a question with them is to risk unearthing some doubt that they are afraid to validate. It is easier just to attack when there is a threat, rather than face the fear.

What are they afraid of? Annihilation. Not just death, but utter and eternal destruction. If you endanger their identity in the group, you could destroy them. Without the group, they will die unredeemed. In a very real way, in their mind, someone who raises doubts or makes them feel uneasy is more of a threat than a serial killer. The serial killer may be striking at random, but you are targeting them. In their mind, the threat is very real, and their reaction is not out of proportion. Not that they think this verbally or rationally, but this is how they are now programmed, emotionally.

The Panther is a Leopard, Too

While the leopard may not be able to change his spots, he can hide them. The black panther is just a leopard with black colouration: in raking light, one can still see the spots, though they are normally hidden. While they are given different names, and look different, they are the same animal.2

The Worldwide Church of God has gone from being a leopard to being a panther: you cannot see its spots anymore, because it has hidden them with the darkness of the final deception: giving its people "freedom". We will get back to this point.

Why would the man from "the New Worldwide" react so violently to anything said against the Armstrongs? Doesn’t his church now contradict their teachings, and isn’t this all "old stuff" that he shouldn’t care about? What does "the Old Worldwide" have to do with him? The man’s instinctive reaction shows a truth that he may not acknowledge rationally: the old and the new Worldwide are one and the same. The surface has changed, but the core is the same.

How could that be? How could a church that taught one should worship on the Sabbath and Holy Days be the same as one that allows or encourages Sundaykeeping and Christmas? How could a non-trinitarian church be the same as one that has a concept of trinity?

As I have maintained for years, none of this matters: it is all storefront. The true, core religion was worship of the Organization, the Church, the Work – as personified by the Armstrongs, but now by the Tkaches.

Which God is Worldwide the Church of?

What is the difference? In the old days, the leaders told people they had to keep the Sabbath and holy days, and people did what they were told. Now, they are taught they do not have to do those things, and they do what they are told. In both cases, they follow what the leadership teaches. The core value is obeying the leadership – what Worldwide has always called "church government," which is a code word for doing something you know isn’t right because someone in authority tells you to do it.

As a matter of fact, obeying the leadership was always a core value, and to prove and test members’ willingness to put the leadership first, it was routine to get people to work on the Sabbath, not only in the Auditorium, but in other projects that the leadership decided was appropriate. If you felt your duty to God was to keep His Sabbath holy, you would soon find out whom you were expected to obey – it was always the church leadership.

The various sins and bad advice that led to broken families, aggravated illness, and death, are also part of this Faustian bargain: obey the Church, and we will see to it you are saved. Any commandment could thus be broken, and many were, time and again, and some leaders felt they had some kind of "special dispensation" from God to sin – kind of a spiritual "get out of jail free"3 card.

Of course. Their god was the organization, and whatever supported it was what counted. The God who Created the world, spoke the Ten Commandments, defined sin and loathed it, and sent His son to die for it – this God was snubbed in favour of the Organization, and was made titular head of the Organization chart – though the men directly below were calling all the shots.

The Church was the god worshipped – in that, whatever you serve and obey is your god, and service to the church superseded and countermanded any duty to serve God. Psychologically, though, the Armstrongs were the church, and Herbert was far too sickeningly often compared with God the Father and Ted with the Son for anyone who was listening not to be alerted to what was going on. Unfortunately, cult brainwashing makes it hard to hear and understand.

New Building, Old Foundations

But now, the church has moved on, and changed its look. The Armstrongs have become somewhat like old popes who still did embarrassing things, like selling indulgences, and making their illegitimate sons bishops. Still, one would not want to say anything against a pope, since he is part of the succession from Peter.

No matter what evils the Armstrongs did, the elder founded the church, and the younger was the public face and voice for many years, and, emotionally, it is not possible to keep the name "Worldwide Church of God" without, on some level, accepting the divine inspiration of these men. Even if most of their teachings have been thrown out. Even if many of their methods are criticized. Even if. Even if…

None of this matters. The Worldwide Church of God is The Worldwide Church of God is The Worldwide Church of God – and it always will be.

The AIDs virus knows how to change its surface, so the body’s immune system cannot create effective antibodies against it. Even cold and flu viruses do the same thing, so we can be infected by new strains again and again. The Worldwide Church of God has changed so radically that its former critics have taken it off the cult lists, and its current critics buy the new Worldwide propaganda that it is "a new organization" – which, of course, it isn’t.

It’s the same old church it ever was. The core is that you sell your soul to the church in exchange for guaranteed salvation. They can use you as they will, tell you what to do, treat you abusively, have you do free work for them, and never, ever apologize – because they own you. You are their slave.

"New Freedom" is Just Old Slavery

So, what is this "new freedom" the people of the "new" Worldwide Church of God have been given? Well, they no longer have to keep the Holy Days and weekly Sabbath, so they no longer need to fear losing their jobs over these issues (and the New Worldwide has less risk of weakening its income base). It does take one burden of worry off the people, and some of them have experienced it as a kind of freedom, compared to what used to be. And they talk a lot about what used to be. About how much better things are. And what kind of ringing endorsement is that, to say, "They’re not as bad as they used to be." It’s like a battered wife saying, "He’s really showing some improvement," but, of course, the abuse never really goes away.

And it hasn’t. A recent email from a reader stated, "My first-hand WCG experience goes up to 2001, so I can attest to the fact that it's still a cult." And we see that in friends, family, and acquaintances who still attend Worldwide: it leaves its mark in angry moods, judgmentalism, and general negativity. Its fruits are still rotten to the core. The Worldwide Church of God website itself makes much of the changes in the church, citing the move to doctrinal orthodoxy. They even go so far as to compare their changes to the conversion of Saul to the apostle Paul!4 Of course, the past abusiveness is never referred to (probably with an eye to avoiding admitting any legal liability), nor is there a hint of the continuing ministerial abuse of members, even in Joe Tkach, Jr's apology5

Of course, these much-touted "freedoms" were not given to the people because they asked for them or wanted them. They were forced on people who did not want them. People had no choice but to put up and shut up – or leave. It is hard to feel liberated when someone else tells you this is what you get, and you have no say in it. {Ahem!} That’s not freedom, folks – it’s something else!

One could joke about it, of course, "We’re setting you free, whether you like it or not! And you’ll like it, if you know what’s good for you!"

There is no way to give people their freedom and continue to rule them autocratically. It cannot be done. It is all an illusion. Any "freedom" given under these circumstances can be taken back at any time. "Freedom" without power, without choice, but with coercion and fear – is just a better slave contract.

But it sure looks good on the outside. It’s fooled mainstream Christianity6, who have taken the pressure off Worldwide. And this confuses Worldwide members, who believe that they must be part of mainstream Christianity, now – so, why are they so afraid? Why are they so careful, now that they are "free", still looking over their shoulders at what decisions they make, wondering what the ministry will think, and what consequences will follow from their "free choices"?

Because it is still a cult – and even more dangerous, now that it has removed its "distinctives," because now even mainstream Christians can be pulled into it more easily. And mainstream Christianity will give members no sympathy. "They’re not a cult anymore!" they will be told. So what is there to complain about?

What more could members of the Worldwide Church of God want? They’ve been "given" their freedom by the man who owns the church; they are accepted by the mainstream – what are they whining about now?

Nothing. They’re not whining about anything. They are, for the most part, silent. But there are no apologies for past abuse, and new abuses keep occurring, because the ministry was trained to be abusive, and their attitude is that they are entitled to do whatever they see fit – because that’s "church government." The ornate case has been changed for a simple box, but the idol inside remains the same.

So What About the Armstrongs?

The Armstrongs are untouchable. They are the foundation of the Worldwide Church of God. Even if the window dressing of doctrine is gone, the core of their church structure, administration, and culture remains the same.

On some level, not only does Worldwide acknowledge this, but so do many offshoots that teach the earlier doctrines. No matter what evils the Armstrongs may have committed, no matter how cynically they spoke, or how outrageously they abused members for decade after decade – somehow, it all has to be excused, and explained away.

One does not even speak of forgiving them for what they have done. Forgiveness would indicate something was wrong, so even that is not the preferred direction, because that raises the question: if the Armstrongs needed the church’s forgiveness, why did they never ask for it? And if they never asked for it, what does that say about their attitudes towards God, and towards the membership? Were there ever, in either of their lives, "fruits fit for repentance7"? Where is the evidence, beyond some sheepish admissions pulled out of them, but kept under wraps from the membership?

A member of the Worldwide Church of God has to maintain an ambiguous stand on the Armstrongs, ready to criticize them to fall into line with Tkach teachings, but ready to defend them as the founders of the church. This creates an uneasy state psychologists refer to as "cognitive dissonance,8" which is even more stressful than before, when the church still practiced what the Armstrongs preached. Of course, the more you keep people unbalanced, the more easily you can prey on them.

You cannot write about the Worldwide Church of God and gloss over the fact that it always was, and still is, a cult. If you do, there are many things about how it operates, and what effect it has on people, which will remain inexplicable. Only when you realize that it is no less a cult than it ever was, can you realize the great continuity between the "old" and the "new" Worldwide Church of God.

A Word for the Leopard

And [Christ] said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's. - Luke 20:25

Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee. – Jude 1:9

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? – Genesis 3:1

Jude 1: 12 - These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds [they are] without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; 13 Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.

The Worldwide Church of God has transformed itself so subtly that it has many people confused, not only its members, and mainstream Christianity, but also its detractors. All believe the lie that it is a totally new organization, completely divorced from its roots. In fact, it maintains the same leadership structure, in direct succession from Herbert Armstrong, rules its members in the same autocratic, abusive way, retains the property from the old organization, and keeps the money from the proceeds of its sale, and in every way continues the old organization under different styles of worship.

Yet, one has to "give the devil his due," and admire the fiendishly clever way in which this metamorphosis has fooled people yet again, doing the trick right under their nose. It also means one needs to be extra vigilant not to be taken in by any part of their propaganda machine, since they have learned very well from their former mistakes. Their critics have taught them well. But the leopard cannot change his spots.

It’s all done with smoke and mirrors.

©2003, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.


1      For information on how cult members (and cult recruiters) behave, see L. L.'s article, "Cults, Pimps, and Other Creeps."

2       "Black leopards (the so-called "black panthers") occur most frequently in humid forest habitats (Kingdon 1977), but are merely a color variation, not a subspecies." says The World Conservation Union, under Leopard: Panthera pardus (Linnaeus 1758), at, accessed January 4, 2003.

3      Garner Ted Armstrong told the nurse and massage therapist that he was trying to force into sexual contact, "Now, SueRae, if you do this, it's OK, because it's like-it will be like repentance for your sins because I am as much like the son of David, and work is so important that I will be forgiven and you will be forgiven." (Geraldo Rivera interview with SueRae Robertson, quoted in "Sex, Crimes and Videotape, July 11, 1997" on "The Painful Truth" website,, accessed January 4, 2003).

4       Good ol' Worldwide -- never afraid to make outrageous claims for itself: even after Herbert is dead and gone, his spirit lives on. Cited from "Transformed by Christ: A Brief History of the Worldwide Church of God, Chapter Three: At a Crossroads", at, accessed January 4, 2003. This essay is a marvel of doublespeak and the power of omission and slanting what is told. In the section, "Why do we exist?" the New Worldwide notes that, when the basic doctrines were changed, some members said they should close their doors, as they had no further reason to exist. That any church should get this response from their members is telling. Most churches have a strong culture of caring for each other, so even doctrinal changes do not lead to people questioning the reason for the church's existance. But in Worldwide's case, they threw away the doctrines, and kept the abusive culture -- who needs that? Members were reacting in dismay to a church throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.

An even better example of Worldwide's false face is the essay, "Comments on Our History", at, which is such a mixture of lies, half-truths, and deceptive emphases, that it seems to be right, even though it is desperately wrong. One needs to read M. Scott Peck's "People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil" to fully appreciate the diabolical crafting of this fine work. I shudder at how clever and subtle the organization has now become -- but they cannot hide the fruits of their work. It is nearly ten years since the major changes, and people are still suffering. Something is wrong. This is more than a transition. If it were right, its fruits would be good, certainly by now.

Also, if one reads these essays out loud, one finds these words communicate a condescending, "holier-than-thou" tone: the language is subtly accusatory and very condescending towards members. To hear these words spoken would be such an insult to members that it is obvious that even Worldwide's best public face contains some hint of Dorian Gray.

5       "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" in the March/April 1996 Plain Truth (online at, accessed January 5, 2003), where Joe Tkach, Jr. says, "We are looking our history squarely in the face and confronting the faults and sins we find. They will always remain a part of our history, serving as a perpetual reminder of the dangers of legalism." and then he goes on to say, "But we cannot live in the past. We must rise above our past." This is something that many members had parroted back to them when they wanted an apology for abuses by the ministry and organization. Never has the church offered any sort of compensation for the worst of the damages to families and individuals -- the breakups, the suicides, the deaths. All they ever admit to are "erroneous doctrines". Members were browbeaten into "forgiving" these things, and judged wanting if they found it difficult to do so without any apology or sign of repentance from those who had wronged them. There is a way of offering an apology that is a subtle condemnation of the person being apologized to, that says, "I am taking the high road, and you are not spiritual enough to meet me there." It is a non-apology that is another kind of attack. People are confused by this, intellectually, but emotionally, they know they've been "gotten." This particular behaviour reminds me of the kind of ministers profiled in my article, "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: The Deceptively Humble Man".

6       The "big break" for Worldwide came on July 15, 1996, when Christianity Today published Ruth Tucker's article, "From the Fringe to the Fold: How the Worldwide Church of God discovered the plain truth of the gospel", online at, accessed January 5, 2003. This is the article that most pastors of other churches seem to have read, and I discuss the reactions I ran into when I first began going back to church, as I mentioned later in my article, "Lying with the Truth: 12.1.1. Stabbed in the Heart".

It is instructive to note that, along with various Worldwide propaganda, this early in the game, Joe Tkach, Jr. mistakenly made this promise, "In the past, our organizational model ... was like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid a few people instructed those below to simply do what they were told.... Now we see that model as being unbiblical and we are moving toward a model that recognizes everyone's spiritual gifts. This new model is inclusive and will require every member to think and contribute." While there has been some effort towards "finding people's spiritual gifts," this has not worked in a system that is still top-down, where the pastor will decide what your gifts are, and whether he wants you to use them, and where -- which is what the "old Worldwide" did, drafting people into jobs according to their abilities -- or even counter to their abilities, to teach them "humility."

But there has been no movement towards relinquishing any control into the hands of the membership. As "The New Worldwide's website says about their church government, at, accessed January 5, 2003, "How is the church governed?" The Worldwide Church of God has a hierarchical form of government. The church's administration is led by the pastor general, who is supported by a board of directors and an advisory council of elders. Each congregation is led by a pastor. Elders, deacons, deaconesses and lay members hold leadership roles under the pastor." This is exactly the model that "the Old Worldwide" used, without change!

In Worldwide's web page on "Leadership in the church", at, Joe Tkach, Jr. describes Worldwide's polity as "episcopal," which is essentially the Catholic model. In a rather confused passage, he notes, "Our form of the episcopal model is radically different from that of the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches. For example, we do not have priests, vestments or a standard liturgical service." The details of what name leaders are given, and what they wear, and the structure of the worship service has nothing to do with church polity, which is the structure of authority in the church. As a matter of fact, Worldwide follows the Catholic model, in that final authority resides in one man, the Pastor General, who wields an authority which is very pope-like. In many ways, though, Worldwide's office of Pastor General has greater authority, since Pastors General, from Herbert Armstrong to Joe Tkach, Sr., have personally named their successors -- in the Catholic church, the decision comes from the College of Cardinals. And Popes, while believed to be infallible when speaking "ex cathedra," have tended not to exercise this authority to change church doctrine radically without much time and consultation, unlike the autocratic changes in Worldwide brought about by the Tkaches.

Also mentioned in the Christianity Today article was the fact some pastors apologized for outright abuse, and Greg Albrecht, then editor of The Plain Truth, is quoted, giving examples of very mild abuses (snooping in people's medicine chests, not practicing things he preached). Still, the word "abuse" is not mentioned again, especially not in Joe Tkach, Jr.'s "Apology"!

7       Christ made clear what he thought of people relying on their affiliations to save them:

"Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." Luke 3:18.

If direct descendants of the chosen people could not rely on their heritage to save them, how could members of any church, or even the founders of it?

And religious works, no matter how important, do not eliminate the need for someone to go through the Judgement. The Apostle Paul said about his work and ministry, which anyone would agree was far greater than was done by any modern minister,

"But I keep under my body, and bring [it] into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. " (1 Cor. 9:27)

and in Philippians 3:11-14:

"… 11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. 12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but [this] one thing [I do], forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

There is no service to God that gives a person license to sin. As Christ said,

"21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. 24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. 26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." (Matt. 7:21-27)

We notice here that these people are: 1) religious leaders or professing followers of Christ (they call Him "Lord") who do religious works and miracles and 2) people who work iniquity and 3) people who hear Christ's words but do not obey them. This saying is directly aimed at people who believe their "religious" works will guarantee their salvation, apart from obedience to God. For further thoughts on the fallacy of dividing God's law into "religious obligations" and "social obligations," see my article, "Which Commandment is the Pivot Between Love towards God and Love towards Man?" If Christ was able to adamantly disavow people who had done successful exorcisms and other great works, because they did evil things (iniquity), who are we to assume that any religious leader could ever be exempt from Christ's searching gaze?

We are also told how risky it is to presume on God and pursue sin, which leads to an unrepentant attitude that will ultimately condemn those who do so, since:

"they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put [him] to an open shame." (Hebrews 6:6)

8       Excerpts from Frederick M. Rudolph's page on Social Psychology discusses Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), saying "A person who has dissonant or discrepant cognitions is said to be in a state of psychological dissonance, which is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension. This tension state has drivelike properties that are much like those of hunger and thirst." The writer goes on to state that people do whatever they can to diminish the tension of this dissonance. From "COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: General Experimental Psychology Cognitive Dissonance Lab" at the University of Ithaca, at, accessed January 4, 2003.

There is also an interesting commentary using a small end-of-the-world sect who dealt with the failure of their leader's prophecy in such a way as to minimize their cognitive dissonance, which should seem familiar, at, accessed January 4, 2003.

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