Armstrong -- Herbert W. and Garner Ted -- who were they?

A Talented Church Leader?

Herbert W. Armstrong’s leadership of the Church of God movement from 1930 up until his death in 1986 has engendered an emotional response from many. It seems some saw him as a great leader and teacher while others remain troubled by his autocratic style of leadership even though he died 26 years ago.

Certainly some loved him as a “grand-fatherly type” but others were disappointed at some of the behaviors either real or exaggerated that were associated with his life and leadership in the World Wide Church of God. A common criticism of him is that he taught that our faith should have a “Father Focus” toward GOD when many felt we should have focused more on Jesus Christ. In retrospect, many now agree that this was not in proper balance in the past culture of the Church of God movement. Most present day COG’s have brought a more realistic application of scriptural teaching on this subject.

Personally, I have been in the Church of God movement now for 40 years and I can tell you plainly that there is both fact and fiction reported commonly about Mr. Armstrong. I neither defend nor extol him as a church leader. But, for me, it was the powerful messages of Herbert Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong that caught my attention as a teenager seeking the truth. What they presented was essentially provable by scripture and drove me to dig out of the bible the living truths of GOD. Historically, the Armstrong’s did have a great impact on opening up the bible during that day. But it is also true that they had great influence and a fair amount of autocratic power over the organizations they led during that period of history in the Church of GOD movement of the day.

I personally met Herbert and Garner Ted briefly and my wife even met Loma Armstrong (Herbert’s wife) many years ago. Certainly, the Armstrong’s played a key role in the formation of the present day Church of God movement whether we agree with each and every one of their teachings and whether we liked them or not – the fact remains they were a key part of the rapid expansion of the church using their considerable GOD-given talents to draw many people back to the word of GOD and the basic principles of the Sabbath and the Holy Days and understanding the coming Kingdom of GOD. This part of their legacy is the “good fruit” of the “tree of their lives”

With regard to Herbert W. Armstrong – I have mostly good memories of him and now I am one of those who see him rather as a “grandfatherly” person who taught me a great deal about the word of GOD. As I apply the teachings of Matthew 7:16-18 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit”.

There is no question that Herbert W. Armstrong was instrumental in laying a foundation for the Church of God movement. In that work – the fruit was mostly positive in an “over-arching-kind-of-a-way”. The movement eventually shattered into many pieces – yet most present Seventh Day – Non-Trinitarian Church of God groups can trace their roots back to his day. In that – he was indeed a producer of good fruit.

Personally, I only see the Armstrong’s as men – not apostles or anything greater than exceptionally talented ministers in the church in a visible and influential positions. Whether you see Herbert W. Armstrong as good or bad – His genius for advertising and corporate organizational development skills served him well in building a formidable Church of GOD movement. It is very clear that his personal views more aligned with Old Covenant Governance -- so he modeled the organization more along the lines of a Mosaic – government from the “top-down”— structure. Whether intended or not, this did indeed consolidate power in the top leadership position. Many now feel that this was not intended by Christ as a method of governance in the New Testament Churches. With a few possible exceptions – most Church of God organizations now recognize this fact. This consolidation of power was “ripe for misuse” and it discouraged many people. So it was vulnerable and, as we all know, came “tumbling down” in the end because it was NOT entirely built on principles of “Servant Leadership” as taught by Jesus Christ Himself.

Matthew 20:25-27 “ But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister (or servant); And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:”

In my view, it was this miss-alignment of authority that “made the church at large vulnerable” to apostasy. I say it was vulnerable – because, over time, the people felt “over-managed” and oppressed and wanted “out”. So they began to question and search for other ways to serve GOD.

Certainly, HWA was a man with foibles and weaknesses, sins, and shortcomings as we all are. It is very common for a man in such a powerful and visible position who has a profound effect on the lives of others to be examined and scrutinized by the public in a highly critical way. When that happens, one is left with very little privacy about one’s personal sins and problems. Because of this scrutiny, all of his sins public and private for all of his life, were made part of the public record. I don’t wish that on anyone and I hope that never happens to me. Can you imagine everyone knowing all the sins you have committed?

It is easy to say that because of who he was and the position and power he had – he SHOULD HAVE been more “pure”. Herbert was born around 1891 and came from a Quaker background. His roots were austere and authoritarian. He came from a very different day than we do. Remember, when he died, he was approaching 95 years old or so. Should he have been “more pure” – well I simply do not find that to be the “norm” in history or even in the history of leaders in the scriptures. The fact that HWA had sins and problems is by no means a surprise. The fact that he saw doctrine somewhat differently than we do today is ALSO no surprise. How many in our day see doctrine in many different ways. Back in the days of HWA, it was SIMPLY a very different day in our culture. People were not exposed to the huge onslaught of information that is so readily accessible and available as it is in our day. But in comparing HWA to other leaders in the church of the past – remember that Paul was once Saul of Tarsus and was an accomplice to the murder of Stephen – a man loved by GOD. Moses was prone to have a temper and committed murder of the Egyptian guard. David committed adultery, conspiracy, and arranged the death of Uriah. Christ had to drive Satan away from influencing Peter – and on and on. This has been the history of church leadership simply because GOD chooses to work through weak flesh. So I say again, the fact that HWA saw things differently than we do today and the fact that he had some sin in his life is no surprise. But the fact that some people are still angry with him when he has been gone now for 26 years is indeed a surprise to me. The Church of God movement teaches that “living according to every word of GOD” is certainly a way of life and not a casual existence. That is why the leadership plays such a big role in how we relate to our exposure to this lifestyle and how we are influenced.

The Church of God movement was not about Herbert W. Armstrong, or Garner Ted Armstrong – it was and is about what GOD is doing in the hearts and minds of his people. I strongly believe that the message at the end of Malachi is a part of what is surely happening with the movement of the Church.

Malachi 4:5 “ Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”

What was happening (in my view) is that GOD is indeed sending a “spiritual message” -- NOT an individual man or a prophet or a leader – at least not yet. But that certain things needed to be restored to the understanding of mankind so that he can again have a proper relationship with GOD. All HWA did was “facilitate” putting together a successful organization where these ideas could flourish. Unfortunately some bad ideas may have come along for the ride. But still, I believe the evidence of this is that during the time of the Church’s rise to some prominence in the last century there were some key truths that were restored to prominence to the doctrinal understanding that do indeed work to turn “the hearts of GOD’s children back to HIM”. Though some of these things were known and followed – it was the Church of God movement that codified them and coalesced them into a higher value of universal doctrine.

Here is the list:

1. What is the True Gospel – the good news of the coming Kingdom

2. God’s purpose for mankind

3. God’s plan as understood through the Sabbath and the Holy Days

4. How God’s Government works (modified significantly by the New Testament Model)

5. Who and what is GOD – Elohim – the Supreme Being working to expand HIS family

6. What is the “spirit in man” -- not an immortal soul

7. Who are the First Fruits

8. What is the Millennium

9. What is God’s Holy Spirit – not a trinity

10. What is Man and why does he exist.

11. We are begotten now

12. We are born-again at resurrection

13. What is the true identity of Israel – not just the Jews or the country of Israel.

14. Understanding who Israel truly is opens up better understanding of prophecy.

15. Tithing is a command of GOD – not just a good idea.

16. Prophetic understanding of who Babylon is and who her Daughters are.

17. Satan’s guilt in the fall and sinful nature of mankind.

18. GOD’s people are to come out of this world and its systems.

One seriously important lesson we have learned is that the ministers are supposed to be “servants” NOT lords! Whether or not you saw Herbert W. Armstrong or Garner Ted Armstrong as committed ministers and teachers of GOD’s word is certainly your “Berean call to make”. But, conversation will invariably arise about the history of the church that show the Armstrong’s in a positive light from time to time. Some conversations will be critical of them. But, it is also important that we acknowledge the good works of the church during the time that they led the movement and even some of the good things that they personally accomplished during that time. Certainly, – on balance – the larger good works of the church movement were not mens works at all – but GOD’s works thru the body of Christ. So I do not believe it serves any purpose to beat-up the imperfect men who struggled with their "humanness" and the trials of life in that role. There will always be those who liked Herbert W. Armstrong and his son Garner Ted Armstrong and those who did not. There is nothing we can do about that – there is no point in going on a mission to change people’s minds on the subject. On this point – I speak from long experience. It is not that some people “get it” and some “don’t” – it’s just that different people had different experiences and were influenced in different ways during that time in our history – some good and some not so good. But the evidence is very clear -- the "greater result" is mostly good.

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Comments 2 comments

EvanToledo 4 years ago

Excellent post, Ed!

As one who first heard Herbert W. and Garner Ted Armstrong in 1961, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment.

Their legacy and the "corporate style" organization they oversaw was very successful in their day. The magnificent Ambassador College and media saturation (and great growth) they achieved is a source of awe to this day, their mistakes not withstanding. They gave us the basics that after we proved, we have never forgotten.

As one who attended back in the 1970s and 1980s as well as one who attends a 21st century COG now, I am thankful for the powerful and inspiring things we now know.

Thanks for your service to God's Church!


Brandon Martin profile image

Brandon Martin 4 years ago from Colorado, USA

I will admit that religion is a very touchy subject. I love what you wrote! You explained your diagnosis of the bible and what is wanted of us and such... very brave. I agree with ALLOT of what you had to say. Great job!

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