Many church groups today were once a part of the Worldwide Church of God. The last count is over 200, and the number seems to be growing. Some believe the apostasy occurred as late as 1995, but the common view held by the majority of these groups is that after Herbert W. Armstrong’s death in 1986, the apostasy set in. As a result of this, they were forced to separate. The question that really needs to be answered is: When did the apostasy begin?

One thing is certain. The Bible clearly foretold an apostasy of the Church of God in the last days. An important key to understanding this is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:4-5. He had just been asked when He would return and when the end of the age would occur. He said: ” . . . Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, I am the Christ, and will deceive many.” Jesus’ answer was to His disciples. He did not warn the unconverted to take heed. They are already deceived. Jesus was talking to those who understood the Truth. And who could deceive these disciples? The answer: Those who came “in Jesus’ name”-men who had been authorized to represent Christ. Of what was He warning? Deception would come from within the Church, not from outside!

While it is true there was a departure from the Truth after the death of the original Apostles (Acts 20:29-30), a prophesied departure in the latter days is implied in Deuteronomy 31:29. Moses wrote: “For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands.” Notice, the anger of the Lord would be provoked because of evil. When? In the “latter days,” not in the immediate centuries after the time of the Apostles. This text refers to a period near the time when Christ will return. Whom does Moses single out? The people of God (1 Pet. 2:9-the Church). Notice, they would “turn aside” (Deut. 31:29). One cannot turn aside unless one has something from which to turn aside. Since the text refers to turning aside in the “latter days,” it describes an apostasy near the time when Christ will return.

The Apostle Paul said this about the Coming of Christ.

Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition (2 Thess. 2:1-3).

The Greek word for “falling away” is apostasia, which means, “defection,” “apostasy,” “departure from truth.” One cannot “fall away” from the Truth if he never had it in the first place. The word “apostasy” means the abandonment of one’s religious faith. In brief, one has to possess the Truth before he can abandon it. This text clearly applies to those who have been given the Truth. It refers to the Church, and tells us what would happen shortly before the return of Christ.

But there are other Bible warnings. Notice these Scriptures:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times [certain] will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron . . . (1 Tim. 4:1-2).
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves . . . . having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2 Tim. 3:1-2, 5).
Knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation (2 Pet. 3:3-4).
How they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts (Jude 18).

These texts show that the Church was destined to apostatize, but when did this apostasy begin?

When people listened to “The World Tomorrow” broadcast, and read The Plain Truth magazine, it gave them a new lease on life. For the first time Bible truths became meaningful, relevant, and significant. These truths expressed a way of life that could truly be practiced with zeal and excitement. Members recall the provocative sermons and enjoyable fellowship experienced at Sabbath services, annual holy day meetings, and Church socials. Overcoming the pulls of the flesh, along with their old habits and problems, the lives of the members reflected the dedication and zeal they had. Many were experiencing outstanding changes in their lives. They believed their calling meant a future responsibility in the Kingdom of God. They knew many Bible prophecies foretold terrible events that were to take place on the earth near the time of the end, but with perseverance and enthusiasm they prepared for the return of Jesus Christ. They had been led to believe these great events would begin in 1972, when the Church would be taken to a place of safety. They thought the Tribulation would begin at that time, and Christ would return in 1975.

But what happened when these years came? The answer: Nothing!

Prophetic Failure

Prophetic assumption is what led to the 1972 “prophetic failure.” When the assumed prophetic dates failed to materialize on schedule, the faith of thousands was shattered. Here is what was not realized: In the Bible, there are no indications that specific prophetic dates can be known in advance, by means of study. What the Bible does make plain is that prophetic dates cannot be foretold in advance unless God gives direct revelation. Direct revelation means that God speaks to the prophet directly, or sends an angel, or gives a vision or dream. Those who believe they can understand prophetic dates in advance by studying and interpreting the Scriptures, will surely be disappointed. All those who have tried to do so have seen their dates fail. A good example of direct revelation is the 70- weeks prophecy in Daniel 9. Yet, even when the number of years was given in the prophecy, the Jews could not understand the meaning and completely failed to recognize Christ as the Messiah. One thing is certain: God has not given any specific date when Christ will return (Matt. 24:36). So, to set specific dates and seasons in advance is being presumptuous.

There is another important principle that many have not understood. The failure to understand this principle is what led to so much disillusionment after 1972. Bible instruction is tripartite, that is, it is divided into doctrine, administration, and prophecy. There is a clear-cut distinction in these three. Depending on the dispensation, administration is subject to change. Most prophecies are general in nature, and prophetic dates in advance cannot be understood except by direct revelation. Doctrine, revealed by God to man, is not subject to change. Those who cannot distinguish the difference between these three are bound to become confused.

Members in Disarray

Thousands of members had become confused, bewildered, and disoriented. They were shattered spiritually, disillusioned, and embittered. Many began to wonder if the Church ever had the Truth on anything. The prophetic failure of 1972 set the stage for what was to follow. Many in the ministry then began to question doctrinal beliefs, and a number of doctrines came under scrutiny. This lack of confidence in the Truth was caused by the inability to tell the difference between doctrine and prophetic dates. Prophetic dates, based on conclusions reached in Bible study, are not revealed doctrine. Prophetic dates in advance are understood only by direct revelation from God. The setting of prophetic dates by applying timetables to various Scriptures is only guesswork. When the prophetic events did not materialize in 1972, people lost confidence in the Church. As a result, many lost confidence in the Church teachings. When “prophecy failed,” doctrine became the scapegoat. The reason: Prophetic assumption was confused with revealed doctrine. Those who began to repudiate Church doctrine did not realize that the Church had presumed a prophetic capability it had not been given. This prophetic failure led many to repudiate the Worldwide Church of God, its leadership, and the entirety of the doctrine. Others, however, for the sake of family and/or job security, decided to remain with the organization. The doctrinal changes that were to follow seemed of little importance to them.

The unity and fellowship that had prevailed for so many years was gone. Many of those who repudiated the Church abandoned their beliefs altogether, or went back to their former churches. At first, those who stayed within the Worldwide Church of God did not know what to believe, but now will accept whatever they are told. They did not ask the question: If the Church had been wrong in the past, what assurance could they have that it was not wrong in 1974 when the doctrinal changes were made?

Doctrine Is Revealed

Jesus said: ” . . . Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”” (John 18:37). There are those, then, who are of the truth. Jesus told the Jews: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He prayed that the disciples would be sanctified by the Truth (John 17:17). For over 40 years the Worldwide Church of God understood that spiritual understanding is given by means of divine revelation. Jesus said the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17). Jesus explained how Truth is revealed when He said: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, [It] will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). It only stands to reason then, that one called of God, and led by the Holy Spirit, will not be led into doctrinal error. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). God is a God of Truth, not of error (Deut. 32:4). The fact is: One cannot understand the Truth of God unless led by the Holy Spirit. This is the Truth that abides, the Truth that is not subject to change (2 John 1-2, Ps. 100:5; 146:6). “For I am the LORD, I change not . . . ” (Mal. 3:6). God’s Spirit does not change and does not lead Christians into error!

The Apostle Paul described how those called of God come to understand.

He wrote:

But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit [which] is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know [them,] because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:9-14).

Why, then, should we assume that the Truth was not given to the Worldwide Church of God until after 1972 when “scholars” were consulted to enlighten us? But we were told in 1974-75, that Bible truth comes gradually and that doctrine can change in the light of “new study.” The question we need to ask, however, is: Did it take Jesus 40 years to bring His Church out of the wilderness of error back to what Protestants have believed all along? And, again, if the Church did not have the Truth before 1972, how do we know it has it now? The fact is: What many in the Church of God believe today is totally the opposite of what they believed before 1972! If the Church was heretical in the 40 years before 1972, then it was never the true Church. The reality is: The entire matter of divine revelation is one of faith. Do we have faith in Christ’s promise or not? Did Christ leave an entire generation of His people in spiritual error until “scholars” were consulted? Did the Holy Spirit lead God’s people for the 40 years before 1972, or was Christ derelict? These are the questions that need to be answered. If we assume the Church now has the correct doctrine, why did we leave one of the many Protestant churches to which we had previously belonged? The beliefs that the Worldwide Church of God headquarters now advocates are essentially those of the Protestants. Yet, most of us know that what we heard on the Worldwide Church of God broadcast, and what we read in The Plain Truth magazine was truly inspirational. Had the ministry and members not confused doctrine with prophetic dates, the chaos would not exist today. But, apostasy was prophesied to occur, and the prophetic failure of 1972 was the catalyst.

When Did the Apostasy Begin?

While many may not realize it, the apostasy in the Church of God did not begin after Mr. Armstrong’s death in 1986. It began earlier, with the doctrinal changes that occurred in 1974-75. The first of these was the change from observing Pentecost on Monday to a Sunday. A Monday Pentecost was attacked first because it seemed to be the most vulnerable. But this was not the main doctrine targeted. Those agitating for change, which included certain ministers in high office, wanted to abandon the teaching on divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ instruction in the gospels was completely discarded in favor of what the Apostle Paul seemed to say. The change in the divorce and remarriage doctrine was made on the basis of a single Greek word-dedoulotai-in 1 Corinthians 7:15. These changes were approved at the highest level, and ministers who opposed this were not given a forum. Furthermore, those who refused to go along with the changes on Pentecost and divorce and remarriage were disfellowshipped. It meant little to those in positions of power whether these men had any real convictions or not. They were told to accept the changes or get out!

“Scholars” were consulted to substantiate the doctrinal changes. The idea foisted upon the ministry and the Church was that revelation ceased with the canonization of the New Testament, and that Bible truth is now understood by scholarship. Also, since “scholars” are continually learning new things, doctrine should be flexible. Therefore, truth is progressively revealed through scholars. The Church was told that these doctrinal changes were not really changes, but merely adjustments, when in fact they were the complete opposite of what the Church had originally taught. Scholarship, of course, has its place. It can be an adjunct and aid in understanding God’s Word, but it is not the Source. Completely forgotten were the many Scriptures that say Truth comes by divine revelation, not by scholarship. The Bible makes some rather candid remarks about scholars. See Malachi 2:12 and Jeremiah 8:9 in the Authorized Version. Yet, in 1974-75, scholarship was touted as the way and means of understanding the Bible. No one considered that most scholars are in disagreement even among themselves and often take sides against one another. Upon which ones, then, should the Church have relied? The result was that most of the ministers and members lost all confidence in the calling God had given them. And they lost confidence in what they had believed. They forgot that God was the One who had opened their eyes to the Truth, and that they should have continued to trust Him in faith. So, they either discarded much of the Truth, or simply chose to believe whatever the Church told them to believe. The idea, therefore, that the apostasy did not occur until the middle 80s, or later, is false. It began in 1974-75, and has continued ever since. Those knowledgeable are aware that the Worldwide Church of God is now largely “mainstream,” and has gained acceptance by what is regarded as Christianity today. A church spokesman for the Worldwide Church of God admitted there had been 29 doctrinal and administrative changes (Christianity Today, April 15, 1977).

Condition of the Church Today

Like the warning given in Matthew 25:8, the lamps of many were “going out.” The result is that over 200 groups now exist that were formerly a part of the Worldwide Church of God, or some offshoot thereof. Doctrinal chaos reigns, as the views found in these groups vary from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Former members who have “itching ears” can now take their choice. Is Christ divided? Not according to the Apostle Paul. He wrote: “Now I say this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas, or I am of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). Christians are called out of the world to be in the body of Christ. As such, they should all have the mind of Christ. If they have the mind of Christ, they will all be practicing the same thing. But, this is not the case today.

Jesus said He would build His Church. But look at what exists. Like the various American churches that are divided up into numerous denominations, so is the Church of God. The fact is: Divisiveness is not of God. Jesus emphasized the importance of oneness among His disciples (John 17:11). The Apostle Paul wrote: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). There is one faith (Eph. 4:5). Where is it today? For over 40 years the Church of God was united in the true doctrine. Not until the prophetic failure beginning in 1972, did many begin to doubt this doctrine and look for avenues to change the Truth. Thousands no longer know what to believe. They now base their entire experience on the trauma that took place after 1972.

What really took place as a result of the doctrinal changes of 1974-75, was a rejection of God’s Spirit. Why? The Holy Spirit is what leads us into the Truth (John 14:26). Scholars do not. When the revealed Truth was rejected in favor of the scholars, God’s Spirit was rejected as the source of understanding. And God’s Spirit was no longer regarded as a source of power in overcoming. Many have now gone into error and lifestyles that cannot be considered godly.

Peter gave this warning:

For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. 2:20-22 AV).

How did the people of God come to the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Here is how: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). How did we receive that Truth? “Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). That gospel was proclaimed for over 40 years on The World Tomorrow broadcast. Not until after 1972 did a new “thrust” in the Work take place, and the true gospel of Jesus Christ was largely forgotten. Among other things, this new thrust required a watering down of the seriousness and force of God’s Law.

Old Testament prophecies indicate that the Church of the last days would be scattered (Jer. 23:1-2; 10:21, Ezek. 34:6). Those who think all the scattered churches of God can be united are only dreaming. Jesus said that at His return, the faith would be difficult to find (Luke 18:8). In the original Greek, the definite article “the” is found just before the word “faith.” English translations omit the definite article and simply translate the word “faith.” “The faith” means the belief-the doctrine. Where can that doctrine be found today? Though difficult to find, Jesus said it would be here. Will you find it?

Note: All Scriptures are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.