Marking a major milestone in its movement toward mainstream Christianity, the once cultish Worldwide Church of God has been accepted into full membership by the nation's largest association of evangelical churches.
Officials with the National Assn. of Evangelicals have overwhelmingly voted to admit the Pasadena-based church into the fold after a detailed examination of its doctrines.
Best known for its Plain Truth magazine and the teachings of its late founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, the Worldwide Church of God has undergone dramatic changes in its doctrines over the past several years.
The group once rejected the Christian Trinitarian doctrine of God in three persons as pagan, and taught that tithing and the observance of the Saturday Sabbath were necessary for salvation. Church members also did not observe the Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter.
"They have changed," said David L. Melvin, vice president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, during a recent interview from the association's headquarters in Carol Stream, Ill. "It's not a new day of compromise and opening our arms on NAE's part. They have become a different body. God has really transformed them."
In the past several years, the church has revamped its beliefs, even as the leadership apologized to mainstream churches and its own members for teaching "false doctrine" for so long.
The Worldwide Church of God now believes in the Trinity and, like all evangelical as well as old-line Protestant churches, teaches that salvation is achieved by God's grace through faith alone. Moreover, a number of its congregations have begun to celebrate Christmas and Easter.
Don Argue, president of the evangelical association, said that other Christians had long been praying for friends and relatives who were Worldwide Church members.
"We see the dramatic changes that have occurred among our friends as God's continuing efforts to bring renewal and revival for his glory," Argue said.
The evangelical association, which includes 43,000 congregations nationwide from 49 member denominations, has been closely following developments in the Pasadena church for a year and a half. Formal examination of its teachings began within the past six months, and the Worldwide Church of God officially asked for membership early this year, Melvin said.
The changes, instituted by Armstrong's successors, resulted in a major schism within the denomination. Tens of thousands of members broke away and organized splinter churches, precipitating a financial crisis. Since then, the church has undergone dramatic cutbacks in staff and budgets, and its showcase campus in Pasadena has been put up for sale.
The church reports 73,400 members worldwide, compared with the 104,000 it claimed before the doctrinal changes.
Greg Albrecht, director of church relations, lauded the evangelical association's vote.
"It's historic . . . because we have been an exclusive, separatist group not seeking any kind of affiliation or accommodation with what we've called 'the world,' " Albrecht said. "On our part it signals a new openness and a realization that we are not the sole body of Christ. We're simply by his grace a small part of it."
Albrecht said, however, that his church's acceptance by the association does not mean it has completed its 'reformation.' He noted, for example, that the headquarters congregation last month marked Easter in its first 'Resurrection Sunday' services.
"There's a dynamic journey that the Worldwide Church of God continues to be on," Albrecht said. "[It] is going to continue for some years to come as we deal with who we are and where we've been and where we're going. We don't have by any means completion right now."