Two years after drastic changes in doctrine rocked the Worldwide
Church of God, its Tulsa congregation is looking for a smaller
worship space and discovering ties to other Christians.
Jim Martin, a member of the congregation here, said, "It was
really tough.... I have been in the church for about 25 years, so
to live a certain way for 25 years and then all of a sudden to have
a religion that's completely different than what you believed for
25 years -- it just took a lot of patience and a lot of studying
The church was often labeled a cult by other Christians, because
of its unique and restrictive views.
But since the winter of 1994, its members have begun an
unprecedented reaching out to other Christians, while losing large
numbers of members who disagree with the changes. The church has
lost as many as half of its 80,000 members. Some have formed new
churches to carry on the former teachings.
On Sunday, Eastwood Baptist Church, 949 S. 91st East Ave.,
will hold a service of reconciliation with members of the Worldwide
Church of God. The service begins at 6 p.m. and is open to the
Doctrinal changes made in the last few years include deciding
that churches other than their own were not doomed, acceptance of
the Holy Spirit as one of the three persons that are God, ending
the insistence on Saturday worship, acceptance of medical
treatment, and a shift away from an intense focus on
The Worldwide Church of God was led by
businessman-turned-evangelist Herbert Armstrong, who by World War
II had built a radio ministry that reached millions with his
interpretation of the Bible.
After his death in 1986, the church began gradually moving away
from some of his most radical teachings about the end of the world,
the nature of God, keeping the Sabbath, and the role of women.
Ron Lohr, minister of the Tulsa congregation, said, "God is
leading us into things that we criticized in the past."
His sermon title for the Sunday evening service is "From Sinai to
Calvary," which describes the changes the church has made.
Among other changes, the church observed the sabbath on Saturday
and believed that those who did not weren't truly Christians, he
said. Now the church has relaxed that rule. He has added a smaller
Wednesday night service for people who may not be able to attend on
Saturday, but said he doubts the congregation will switch to Sunday
The congregation worships on Saturdays at 2 p.m. at Lewis and
Clark Middle School, 11th Street and Garnett Road, but the
auditorium's size overwhelms the congregation.
Lohr said about six years ago, Tulsa had two congregations of
about 300 each. Now, there is one congregation of about 200 people.
The Rev. Lonnie Latham, executive director of the Tulsa Baptist
Association, is one pastor to whom Lohr has reached out. They met
at an interdenominational training seminar.
Latham said, "We've tried to help him find a place to meet,
since they're in transition. We are just really proud of the way
the Lord's working with those folks. I believe the Lord is breaking
down those barriers.
"I don't think the laity are that much aware of what's going on,
but within the pastors' conference, Mr. Lohr has come to a couple
of meetings and has been warmly received. The men have shared with
him and prayed with him and made themselves available to him."
The denomination is struggling. The headquarters in Pasadena has
been put up for sale. Most of the staff has been laid off. The
denomination has had to close its college, Ambassador University in
Big Sandy, Texas.
Martin, who joined the church as a teen-ager in Oklahoma City in
the 1970s, said, "I have lost a lot of close friends. That was kind
of tough to do. But what I have really learned in the past two
years has been just amazing to me -- it took us that long for us to
see it. But once we really studied it and dug into the scripture,
it seems pretty clear now.
"We were a pretty legalistic church. We were real strict on
keeping the Old Covenant law, and we studied the New Testament and
have come to an understanding that no longer applies -- the Old
Covenant was done away with, with Christ at the cross."
Becky Hanshaw is a member of the Tulsa congregation, with her
children and husband, Mike. She said of the doctrinal changes, "I
was kind of surprised, but it sounded like it just rang true. I
needed to do some study on it, but I felt that it was absolutely
"It was hard for some people more than for myself. Putting so much
emphasis on certain rules, like the fact that we took such a strong
stand on sabbath observance -- I don't know that it proves you're a
Christian. I was even beginning to doubt that before."
Hanshaw said her family moved here from Corpus Christi, Texas,
about four years ago. She said she's heard that most of the
congregations in south Texas have left the church for groups that
hold on to the former teachings.
Those who have accepted the changes "have learned and grown, and we
feel a greater connection to the Christian community.... We feel
like we are part of something bigger than we ever thought possible."
Lohr said, "I believe that God has brought us this far for a
purpose, and not to be put on the trash heap of religious history.
With God's help, we will regroup and find our place."