The Doctrine of Divorce & Remarriage – How And Why It Was Changed

in Church of God Articles

By Paul Royer and Bryce Clark

In May of 1974, the Worldwide Church of God changed its teaching on the doctrine of divorce and remarriage. In order to pave the way for this change, Mr. Armstrong had been told for many months that the church was losing members. And that this was because of his unwillingness to change on this important issue.

Two major reasons were added in order to convince Mr. Armstrong that something had to be done. The first reason was that a sizeable number of members were withholding tithes and offerings, and more would join them if something were not done. The second reason was that the third tithe account was extremely low as millions of dollars had been used for the purchase of jet aircraft and other personal needs. A mountain retreat, for example, as well as a home in Lake Tahoe were being supported by third tithe, as well as a number of other questionable expenditures. The evangelist in charge of distributing third tithes at that time estimated that about 40% of this tithe was disbursed to the widows, strangers, and fatherless. The other 60% was going to the “Levites” at the top level. Multiple millions of dollars were involved in this abuse.

One more reason given was that since the income was down drastically, bills that were coming due could not be met unless some sort of drastic action was taken. Those agitating for the doctrinal change kept saying that if the doctrine could be changed, hundreds upon hundreds of “spiritual widows” would be free to remarry, and this would make available millions of dollars for other uses in the Work.

Two Weeks Before the Doctrinal Change

It was generally known, within the higher echelon of executives at Pasadena, that a select group was going to encounter Mr. Armstrong for the purpose of pressuring him to change the divorce and remarriage doctrine. One evangelist talked with a minister in the Hall of Administration, as the evangelist was visibly shaken about what was about to take place. The two of them went to the office of another evangelist to discuss the matter. In privacy the first evangelist went through the Scriptures, especially 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7, forcefully and vigorously pointing out that those fostering the change were biblically wrong. The discussion went on for some time, the others listening and following along in their Bibles. The conclusion that was reached was that it was biblically impossible that this select group would be able to dissuade Mr. Armstrong to accept such an ungodly thing.

Fourteen days before the change was made, a minister went to discuss the upcoming doctrinal change with an evangelist who was known to be a scholar. The minister who went to see the evangelist was deeply disturbed over the upcoming change and the way it was being “railroaded” upon the ministry and the church, with a total disregard for the Word of God. As they talked, the evangelist assured the minister that there was no possible way to change the doctrine biblically. He reassured the minister, “You have no need for concern. I will personally put down such an attempt.” Yet, fourteen days later, this very evangelist provided the “key” that convinced Mr. Armstrong to change. When he was asked why he had done such a thing, his reply was, “Why, I never knew what Mr. Armstrong wanted. When I knew, I gave it to him.”

The Root Cause of the Change

For some years prior to the doctrinal change, what most ministers and lay members did not know was that some of those at the executive level at Headquarters were aware that the top evangelist totally disagreed with most, if not all, of the Church’s doctrines, especially the doctrine of divorce and remarriage. He was actively committing adultery on a regular basis and had at least one known mistress. In the beginning only a few ministers knew about the problem, but by 1972 most learned about it. But, by then, several other ministers were also committing adultery.

About a month before Pentecost of 1974, this top evangelist met with another minister in the privacy of his home. It involved a matter totally unrelated to doctrine. In the discussion the top evangelist told the minister, as a friend, what his plans were for bringing about changes in doctrine. He told of the ministers he had removed and the ones he was going to remove later. When the minister left the home of this top evangelist he was incredulous. He could not believe what he had heard because what he was told privately did not jibe with what was being said publicly.

So, when the ministers of the Worldwide Church of God, from all around the world, assembled at the Ambassador College Auditorium in Pasadena, on May 6, 1974, for the formal dedication ceremonies, they had little idea about what was to be announced. They assembled for the purpose of honoring God and to dedicate this beautiful building to His service. What they hear was the most shocking announcement of their lives.

There is an official transcript, word for word, of the dedication ceremony. Containing approximately 20,000 words, it is 89 pages long. It contains 13 pages of introduction, a one-page dedication prayer, and 75 pages of the most shocking announcement ever made by the Church of God. Most ministers were totally unaware of what had taken place behind the scenes to bring about this unsettling announcement.

Initial Reactions

The announcement was that most of those divorced were now free to remarry, since God had not bound their marriages. At first there was stunned silence in the auditorium. As this “new truth” was being explained, some of the ministers were ashen-faced. They could not believe what they were hearing. What they were witnessing was forty years of the sanctity of marriage dramatically dashed to pieces in one fell swoop. No longer would the sanctity of marriage be upheld. Marriage had now become of a lesser significance than what is taught by most other “Christian” religions. This “new truth” differed only slightly in minor details than what is taught by most Protestant churches-that divorce is sanctioned by God!

As the explanation continued, those who had fostered the change began to applaud. The decision by Mr. Armstrong made them jubilant. They had worked hard for the change and had waited a long time. Soon others joined in the applause, some vigorously, some apologetically, while some refrained.

After the session ended, ministers sought out their friends in order to discuss the new change. There was one subject and one subject only on the minds of the assembled ministers. The hallways were abuzz with conversations. Some spoke in normal tones while others whispered. Some were strong, loudly and fearlessly denouncing what they had been told. In the front of the auditorium small groups congratulated one another, shaking hands and embracing. They were ecstatic over their triumph. The doctrine of divorce and remarriage had now been changed! One evangelist loudly and strongly raised his voice. “This is lunacy,” he said. “It’s unbelievable!” I’ll never in my life consent to such an ungodly doctrine of error.” Those nearby tried to quiet him. Another evangelist took him by the arm and said, “this is not the time or place to discuss this-do you want to get all of us, including yourself, in trouble?”

Only four of the fourteen evangelists had been active in promoting the change. Of the ten who were not involved, five were known to be strongly opposed to the change. The remaining five were non-committal and did not express their views publicly. It was impossible to know what they really felt about the matter.

The Doctrinal Committee

Some time before the desired change, a Doctrinal Committee had been formed to expedite the matter. There were only two men who selected members for this committee. Primary credentials for appointment required being in favor of the change in divorce and remarriage, for a Sunday Pentecost, and to water down the healing doctrine. Two members on the committee who opposed the new belief on divorce and remarriage were removed during Mr. Armstrong’s absence. He reinstated them on his return, but they were later removed again.

With a hand-picked doctrinal committee in place, it was “a go ahead” except for one obstacle-how to change Mr. Armstrong’s mind. The committee agreed that to change Mr. Armstrong’s mind on the doctrine of divorce and remarriage would be most difficult. They felt that of the doctrines they wanted to change, the best chance would be to get him to accept a change to a Sunday Pentecost, since that doctrine was the most debatable among the scholars. It seemed to be the one most difficult to prove from the Bible. Also, they knew that as the years went along, Mr. Armstrong was becoming more and more impressed with the educated of this world, even to the point of elevating them above the ministry.

The Pentecost change was made in 1974. The official announcement came from Mr. Armstrong in a letter dated February 11, 1974. The reason given for the change was that “this church has always confessed and corrected error,” and that we are to “grow in grace and knowledge.” The members were also told that the Work of God was now entering “a new era after forty years; it’s like starting all over again.”

Following the changes on Pentecost and divorce and remarriage, several members of the doctrinal committee indicated dissatisfaction, not so much with the changes that were made, but with the fact that they were not given sufficient credit. One well-educated member of the committee stated that he would no longer attend the sessions except when he had to in order to keep his job. He described the method of ascertaining truth at the meetings. “Mr. Ted Armstrong calls Dr. Hoeh and gives him the subject he wants discussed and proceeds to give him his surmise on the matter. Then the Doctrinal Committee meets. We discuss the subject, all the pros and cons, in many long-hour sessions. When we are all finished, Dr. Hoeh writes a report and submits it to Mr. Ted Armstrong. No matter what is discussed, the report always coincides with Mr. Ted Armstrong’s conclusion on the matter prior to the discussion. So what’s the use in discussing the question-the doctrine-in the first place?”

The Question-

How to Change the Divorce and Remarriage Doctrine

After deciding something must be done about the divorce and remarriage doctrine, those pushing for the change began an intense study of how it should be accomplished. For weeks and months the committee toiled with the Greek word porneia, as well as other Greek and Hebrew words. They tried very hard, even looking at unclear Scriptures, to somehow prove that it was permissible to divorce and remarry. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 , Jeremiah 3:8 and Hosea 4:14 were closely examined. Extensive papers were written, but all their reasoning proved nothing, and they knew it. There was simply no way they were going to get around Mr. Herbert Armstrong with such arguments. He was adverse to these. There had to be another way.

They considered going to Mr. Armstrong’s trusted legal assistant-Mr. Stanley Rader. They reasoned, “if we can get him to go to Mr. Armstrong and present the case from a legal viewpoint, we might stand some chance in getting the doctrine changed.” This was the plan until the scholarly evangelist, unexpectedly, presented a new theory-that God does not bind all marriages. This occurred just before Mr. Armstrong returned from a trip overseas. The committee was jubilant when discussing this new approach. If they presented it in a careful manner, it might work, they thought. But, they admitted it won’t be accomplished in one sitting. It will take time.

The most surprised individuals of all were those who went to Mr. Armstrong’s house on that fateful evening just before the May 1974 conference. They had left with “a sell.” In just a matter of a few hours they had convinced Mr. Armstrong of the “legality” of divorce. They were overwhelmed with joy. The next morning a hurried meeting was called for all the ministers to assemble at the Music Hall of the Loma D. Armstrong complex. There Mr. Ted Armstrong gave them the good news. It was a real breakthrough as it was not expected. This took place just days before the largest ministerial conference ever to be held by the Worldwide Church of God was to occur.

No Time to Prepare

In a hurried manner, the Doctrinal Committee prepared this “greatest of announcements.” It came quickly on May 6, 1974. Later, apologies were made for the inadequate presentation that had been made as they hadn’t expected the change to take place so soon. A crash program was then started to prepare the written material needed to back up this “new truth.” Prior to the adjournment of the conference, a 24 page paper was handed out to the ministers, but it was quickly withdrawn because it was so full of error. It turned out to be an embarrassment. It was also supposed to go out in a modified form to the church membership, but that plan was withdrawn. A few of the ministers admitted it was not such a good paper after all.

For months the church membership waited for a new booklet giving the proof of this new divorce and remarriage doctrine. They are still waiting. However, many of God’s people readily accepted this “good news,” and many in the church have remarried. A year or so before the doctrinal change, a very close friend of the top evangelist wanted to remarry. He was told to go ahead because it wouldn’t be long before “we’ll make it legal.” He was told to sit it out a short time, and then he would be able to come back to church. He did so and was given a plush assignment upon his return.

Two ministers left as dissidents because they became too impatient to wait for the changes on Pentecost and divorce and remarriage. They were urged to “hang in there, not to get upset and leave,” and “we are well on our way to having both changed.” They stated they had waited long enough, and after receiving handsome settlements in order to keep them quiet, they started their own work. It has, of course, come to nothing.

The May 15th Study Paper

Only a sampling of the reasoning used to make the divorce and remarriage change can be given here to illustrate how God’s people were led away from the truth. The expression “has been sanctified” in 1 Corinthians 7:14 coupled with “otherwise the children are unclean” was given as proof that God has not entered the marriage until conversion. “Unconverted persons outside the church are just exactly that-outside, not sanctified, unclean” (p. 20). “Marriages in this world are recognized by God to be bound. . . bound by man. Marriages are also ‘recognized’ by God to be ‘unbound’ when legally processed by state courts” (p. 13). “The Church therefore recognizes the legality of divorces of those who are not members of the Church of God” (p. 9). Here are some more quotes. “But God has given his Church authority to bind and loose in matters such as marriage in which men have stumbled and erred and been in confusion and in which God has not been a party. The Church therefore recognizes the legality of divorces of those who are not members of the Church of God” (ibid).

The above statements were challenged by the following question: “If God binds only the marriages of those who are converted in His Church, then what happened when Christ performed the first marriage of Adam and Eve?” The answer: “Adam and Eve were neither converted nor unconverted. . . . therefore that unique ceremony was a special case, and it could not become the norm for the sinful world” (p. 15). Is this true? Adam and Eve were carnal, made of flesh. They had all the pulls of the human nature within them. This is why they sinned. Certainly they were not converted, but to say they were not unconverted upholds the doctrine of original sin-that Adam and Eve did not sin. They fell. Salvation, therefore, is the restoration of the state they enjoyed prior to their fall. Few people recognized the tainted doctrines of nominal Christianity now creeping into the church.

Another statement in the study paper is: “God’s Church is not responsible for the original breakdown of such a marriage [one outside the church], but we can be responsible for, or participate in, healing this tragic breach by 1) recognizing the second happy marriage. . . . (p. 15). Throughout the study paper the second happy marriage is emphasized; the horrible marriage was the first one. However, this is not always true. Many second marriages are just as unhappy as first marriages. What should the church do when there have been many marriages, for example, four or five marriages with children born to each? Which marriage should the church heal? Which should be considered the happy marriage? What should be done about the children in these four or five unhappy marriages? The fact is: Such examples of human reasoning given to support the change on divorce and remarriage are not acceptable to God.

The study paper refers to 1 Corinthians 7:17-18. “Paul has stated a basic principle of judgment concerning marriage. Then he gives an illustration: Were you circumcised when God called you? If so, stay that way!” The reader is expected to apply the following logic: Are you living with a second wife. Stay that way! We could apply this logic in an endless manner. For example, are you effeminate, a drunkard, a pervert? Stay that way! Again, this kind of reasoning used above to support the doctrinal change on divorce and remarriage does not befit God.

How far are men willing to go in order to justify divorce and remarriage? Here is another example in the study paper. “On conversion, the spouse becomes ‘a new creation’ (Greek: ktisis, 2 Cor. 5:17). In at least a figurative sense his or her marriage ended with his old life; it is dissolved in baptism and ‘old things are passed away.’ The marriage can be reconstituted. . . . But the unbelieving partner can refuse (if he or she chooses) to reconstitute the marriage. The Christian [member of the Worldwide Church of God] is then free” (p. 22). That this kind of reasoning could even come up in the Church of God is truly unbelievable. It is tragic . A mockery has been made of God’s great law on the sanctity of marriage.

One more example should suffice. The question is asked about Romans 7:2. The answer given in the study paper is: “Romans 7:1-2 has been misunderstood in the past, as if it were the overall marriage principle which not only stood alone, but also overruled all others. The fact is, however. . . the reference to marriage in this chapter is only ‘an illustration,’ an ‘example,’ ‘for instance,’ a ‘general principle,’ an ‘analogy.’ And analogies don’t prove anything” (p. 22). So, according to the study paper, God uses wrong analogies, analogies that are not really true in order to make a point which really isn’t a point after all, because analogies don’t prove anything. This kind of reasoning must be a stench in the nostrils of God!

The Dedication of May 6, 1974-What We Were Told

At the auditorium dedication Mr. Herbert Armstrong began by stating:

One day-and very recently-I think not over a week or ten days ago, my son Garner Ted came up to me with this: He said, ‘In the First Century, when the Apostle Paul wrote, divorce and remarriage problems were bad, possibly more rampant than now, in the Greek and Roman countries. Therefore, we know that he was running up against these problems just as God’s ministers are today. And yet we can find nothing in his writings showing any of these sticky problems, these borderline cases, or the things which are plaguing our ministry today. Why?’” (pp. 26-27, reel 1).

This argument assumes that God’s silence means he approves of divorce and remarriage. The fact is: God’s Word is silent on many matters. There is little detail in the Bible regarding overindulgence in alcohol, which was also rampant during the time of the Romans. Does God’s silence mean we are all free to get drunk?

Certainly, Bible students are aware that the entire truth about a doctrine is not found in a single place alone. God says, “. . . here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” (Isa. 28:13). Paul’s writings are especially susceptible to wresting, to which those who trust in their own intellect will fall prey (2 Pet. 3:16).

One of Garner Ted Armstrong’s strongest arguments for proof that God does not bind marriages is that many men in the Old Testament period had multiple wives and concubines. He stated, “. . . that David was married to two women at once ( p. 36, reel 1). Also, David by a “. . . conservative estimate had at least 20 or more concubines [and] he was still a man after God’s own heart” (p. 38, reel 1). “David never had to repent of the sin of adultery where Haggith or Eglah, or any of these others we have read are concerned. It isn’t in the Bible” (p. 42, reel 2). His contention was that David had to repent only of his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. Does that now mean we can all have 20 or more concubines? Or that this is approved by God?

Another reason Garner Ted Armstrong contended that marriages outside the Worldwide Church of God are not bound is because there have been marriages of “. . . grunting savages. . . people up at Point Barrow, Alaska, who knew nothing but hair seals and whale blubber;” there are people “. . . plastered with whatever strange paintings or body decorations. . . . ,” and they go through the “strangest rituals” (p. 32, reel 1). The question is: What do these customs have to do with God’s Law? Do such customs give God’s people the right commit whoredom like the rest of the Gentiles?

Garner Ted Armstrong also stated, “It was an assumption [by the Church] that there is one and one act only, in which God the Father directly involves Himself; and that is at the instant in time these two people [any two people] outside the church decide to be married” (p. 32, reel 1). For one thing the church never assumed that this was all the Father was involved in. Jesus said His Father worked (John 5:17), no doubt, at many things. But, if all the Father involved Himself in was marriages now defined by the new doctrine on divorce and remarriage, He would be doing little work at all. He has been on a 6,000 year vacation. According to this new doctrine, the only marriages God binds are those in the church. Prior to AD 31 there would have been no work for the Father since there was no New Testament church until then. Perhaps he bound some in the early New Testament period and some in our time today. But, by comparison to the population of the present day world, there are few marriages indeed God has bound. When one stops to think of this, it is all rather ridiculous, isn’t it?

Even Newer Truth

Since the original change was made on the teaching of divorce and remarriage, there has been further “new truth.” Not only is divorce acceptable outside the church, it is now acceptable inside. In a letter dated September 2, 1975, a minister who had questioned the new church teaching, was told by C. Wayne Cole, writing for the Doctrinal Committee, that though God hates divorce, “Yet, He also realized that within the realm of carnal human beings divorce is still sometimes necessary. Even BAPTIZED CHURCH MEMBERS sin and thus alienate their mates from time to time. If they are so unforgiving and vindictive that they cannot find it in their hearts to forget the sin of the offending party THEY MAY HAVE A DIVORCE IF THEY SO WISH. But it is usually best if they reconcile-though in some cases the best course is separation and divorce! Each case must be determined on it own demerits. . . ” (emphasis Mr. Cole’s).

The Worldwide Church of God has turned from the truth given it. It has turned to unclear, vague Scriptures, while ignoring clear decisive texts which make the teaching on divorce and remarriage plain. Peter said Paul’s writings were hard to be understood, which those who were spiritually unlearned would wrest to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). Look what this clear cut text states: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Since this change was made in 1974, along with the change from a Monday to a Sunday Pentecost, what has happened to the Worldwide Church of God? It is no longer God’s Church; it has joined in with the nominal churches of this world, even accepting Sunday as a day of worship. The time of the end is near. God is proving whether you will follow His word or the words of men. We are told, “. . . We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). What will be your choice?

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