Interview With Philip Rice,
an Antelope Valley Pastor with the
Worldwide Church of God
On March 6, 1996 Don Patterson, pastor of Quartz Hill Community Church, had the opportunity to conduct a wide ranging interview with Philip Rice, pastor of High Desert Church of God, a church associated with the Worldwide Church of God.
So far as we know, the Worldwide Church of God is the only group listed in Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults that will have to be deleted from future editions because they have become orthodox.
Don: The Worldwide Church of God has undergone considerable changes in the last few years since the death of Herbert W. Armstrong. Could you give an overview of what some of the most significant changes are?
Philip: I'll begin by giving a little history. Before Herbert Armstrong died in 1986 he appointed Joseph W. Tkach to be his successor. In earlier private conversations, Armstrong had instructed Tkach to look into some specific areas of doctrine that he was convinced needed to be reviewed. When Tkach became the Pastor General one of the first issues that he addressed was our teaching about healing. He co-authored a booklet which presented to the Worldwide Church of God a new perspective about healing and healthcare. In the booklet he gave approval for the use of medicine and medical alternatives as part of taking responsible action in personal healthcare. Prior to this new official position it was seen by a number of our members as a lack of faith in divine healing to turn to the medical field for surgical solutions to health problems. Although members used the services of physicians for routine check-ups and emergency surgeries prior to this point, many saw using medical solutions as being incompatible with faith in divine healing. This change was the first significant doctrinal one in Tkach's administration. Concerning our literature, Herbert Armstrong played such a prominent role as the primary author of all church literature that his byline appeared on most all of our publications. A Doctrinal Review Team was formed to update our publications. During the review process which included all of our literature, the DRT found and uncovered some doctrinal inaccuracies which needed to be corrected. This process led a complete doctrinal review on most of our teachings. The trinity and the nature of God, British Israelism, the Sabbath, the Old and New Covenants and several other positions have been clarified. One way to describe our prior perspective on the Mosaic and the New Covenants is that we were attempting to see the New Covenant through the "eyes of the Old Covenant." We see now with greater clarity that the law and Prophets all pointed to Jesus Christ. He was and is the point of the Old Testament. We have come to appreciate the purposes of both Covenants and to recognize their differences.
Don: What have these changes meant to you, personally?
Philip: We have been exclusive. Part of what caused us to be exclusive was our perspective on British Israelism. Additionally, we kept the Old Covenant festivals as though they were binding on Christians today and judged as sinners all those who claimed to be Christian but didn't keep those same festivals, food laws and other teachings. We also claimed to be the "only true church." Being exclusive was painful for me. I could not find a way to reconcile all the benevolent actions of Christians outside our fellowship with the "fact that they were not true Christians." Now that we acknowledge the Body of Christ to be the spiritual community of all believers and that this reality transcends all denominational and organizational walls, I am personally thrilled. I am much more comfortable with our inclusive gracious outreach to all believers and I enjoy fellowshipping with other Christians who are members of other denominations.
Don: You were raised in the Worldwide Church of God?
Philip: Yes, when I was born, my parents were members of the Worldwide Church of God. My father served in the pastoral ministry for several years. So, I'm a church brat.
Don: Going back to something you just said about exclusivity, while we're in the mode of confessing here, let me just point out, there was an article in the Quartz Hill Journal of Theology ("The Landmark Controversy: A Lesson in Humility", Vol. 2, Number 1, April, 1995) from me, about a Southern Baptist time when we went through the same kind of thinking, that Southern Baptists were the only true denomination going back to John the Baptist. So if you weren't one of us, you were out. So we have something in common, there.
Philip: Sure. Does that adequately answer your question?
Don: Actually, I'd like to hear about how you came to know the Lord. Is it just something that was gradual, that you grew up with it and you understood about Jesus, or did you come to a point in your life where you had to make a personal decision? What happened to you?
Philip: My conversion was a gradual one. I was baptized during my early twenties but my initial conversion was an intellectual one. Over the past decade my relationship with Jesus has taken on a whole new meaning. At first, I knew him as my Savior. Then I came to know him as my Lord. Now, I am coming to know him as my dear friend.
Don: How have these changes in the Worldwide Church of God affected your ministry? Has it changed the way you do things?
Philip: Yes it has. As a colleague of mine put it, "our mission field is our own fellowship." In my ministry I now see the need to help those that I pastor become more Christ-centered. This must be the first focus. He is not just playing a role in our lives, He is our life. Leading people to a more clear focus on Jesus and His ministry is what my ministry is about.
Don: Continuing with the same theme, how has this affected your local congregation?
Philip: I am blessed to serve a wonderful congregation. It has been difficult for some members to responding positively to the changes in our fellowship. Reform is always painful. Several families left the fellowship of our local congregation to form another local splinter group who hold to most of our former teachings.
A number of our members were formerly employed by our church offices and have relocated to find employment out of state after they lost their jobs. Since our membership has been declining nationwide, a financial crisis has followed. Church officials have had to make deep budgetary cuts to manage our declining income. Another challenge has been to help members to be patient with each other through the process of change. Regarding the pace of change, some want to move faster than others. It is quite impossible to please everyone. However, our congregation is doing quite well now in making the necessary theological and cultural adjustments.
Don: I was going to ask if there was any retrenchment, people wanting to "go back to Egypt?"
Philip: More than thirty percent of our ministers and members left our fellowship in the U.S. Most of them formed a new group called the United Church of God. Many of those who left did not agree with our doctrinal changes concerning Sabbath-keeping, tithing, festivals and food laws.
Don: I have to tell you, odd as it may sound, that the thing that convinced me that what was happening in the Worldwide Church of God was real was the fact you were losing a lot of money. That told me you were serious.
Philip: We put our money where our mouth was?
Philip: We cannot compromise the gospel.
Don: When did Herbert W. Armstrong found the Worldwide Church of God?
Philip: In 1934.
Don: Where do you see the Worldwide Church of God in the future?
Philip: We are moving in the direction of evangelical Christianity. We are making the journey out of legalism. I don't want to imply that I think all members in our denomination were legalistic and had no understanding of salvation or grace. I am saying that our general understanding of salvation as a fellowship emphasized works and personal performance. It has taken time to reframe our collective appreciation of grace. We are forming a new identity with a refocused purpose. Local congregations are encouraged to become more autonomous without being completely independent. I think that our fellowship in the future will become experienced in and noted for helping Christians journey out of legalism into a life changing grasp of grace.
Don: We have two ministerial groups in this valley, an evangelical group and a group made up of churches that are not evangelical, including even the synagogue. What do you think of this?
Philip: I have chosen to be member of both groups of clergy the Antelope Valley Christian Ministers Association and the Antelope Valley Interfaith Council. One of the reasons that I am in both is that I have a personal desire to see churches in this community work together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation in bettering our community. I believe that all churches can make a helpful and necessary contribution in the valley. This doesn't mean that I agree with all doctrines of every fellowship. However, there are commonalities of concern that we all share such as building a safe community and helping the poor. These the two ministerial groups are quite distinct and hold some philosophies and theologies that are in tension with each other. Even so, I have enjoyed being involved with both groups and plan to continue my membership in each one. I want to encourage partnership within the faith community in the areas of community service.
Don: How have these changes affected you socially?
Philip: I am enthusiastically developing relationships with other pastors and church leaders in the valley. I deeply respect the conviction and integrity that I have found in so many Christians and that very much includes you, Don.
Don: Because of a shift to a New Testament stance on giving -- its voluntary nature -- the Worldwide Church of God has lost a lot of its income. What has happened to your institutions: Ambassador College and Ambassador Auditorium?
Philip: The church did provide two campuses of Ambassador College, one in Pasadena and the other in Big Sandy, TX. Presently, we have one campus in Big Sandy. However, the college is now a fully accredited university with the new name of Ambassador University. The Ambassador Auditorium located on our church property in Pasadena is used primarily for worship services for our Pasadena headquarters congregation. Formerly, Ambassador Auditorium was also used as a concert hall and cultural center for Ambassador Foundation. Many well-known musicians and artists have been featured in the auditorium. Because of a lack of finances to subsidize the concerts it is no longer used for this purpose.
Don: Is there still a TV program?
Philip: No. We do plan to provide a new radio program which I think will be a weekly two minute devotional to encourage listeners toward a closer walk with Jesus Christ.
Don: Whatever happened to Garner Ted Armstrong?
Philip: Garner Ted Armstrong started the Church of God International after his father disfellowshipped him in the late 1970's because of serious personal problems. The church he started, with its headquarters in Tyler, Texas (I believe) is not affiliated with the Worldwide Church of God.
Don: Lets move on to some theological questions. What is the nature of salvation?
Philip: We affirm that salvation is the gift of eternal life from God which is received through grace by faith alone.
Don: How does today's position differ from that of the past?
Philip: We formerly would have acknowledged that salvation comes to believers by faith and that works are required. But Scripture asserts that we are saved by grace plus nothing. Our works do not contribute to the gift.
Don: You mentioned earlier that you were challenged on your thinking about the Trinity. What's the church's position at this point?
Philip: We fully embrace the Trinity. That is, we affirm that Scripture presents one God Who is three distinct, coessential persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the past we rejected the notion of the Trinity as being false. We presented God as two separate persons, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit being their "power."
Don: What is the Worldwide Church of God's position on British Israelism, today?
Philip: We no longer subscribe to British Israelism as being relevant to salvation. Of course, we appreciate the story of Abraham and the mighty promises God made to him which present the promises of the new Covenant. The most significant of those promises was the promised seed who is Jesus Christ. British Israelism emphasizes the physical promises given to Abraham and attempts to trace the heritage of his physical descendants. One problem this caused us was that as we placed significance on the modern settlements of Abraham's physical descendants, laying claim that these people had "special significance to God" it encourages a kind of racism in the form of viewing Anglo Saxons as superior. Besides, Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that physical ancestry is not meaningful to God's present purposes of salvation.
What counts is our union with Christ and the identity this gives us. Studies of genealogy can be interesting and informative in understanding cultural heritage but not for assessing human value and potential.
Don: How has the Worldwide Church of God's stance on eschatology changed?
Philip: We continue to appreciate the eternal significance of Christ's return. What has changed is our approach to prophetic interpretation. Formerly, we did not consistently read the book of Revelation as Apocalyptic literature. In some passages we gave a literal interpretation of time frames and built speculative predictions on our conclusions. For example, we taught dogmatically that the period of one thousand years mentioned in chapter 20 was a literal millennium. To other passages we gave a symbolical interpretation of time frames and events. No longer do we try to "figure out" the precise time table of events leading up to and following Jesus' return. Jesus emphatically stated that "no one knows the day nor hour" of his return. Regarding our teaching on hell, we do not teach and never have taught to my knowledge, the reality of an ever-burning hell though we do affirm the reality of a final judgment. We do not believe that all human beings have their "single chance" to receive salvation in their lifetime during this age. Millions of people have died who have never even heard the name Jesus Christ. It is our understanding that through the miracle of a future resurrection all people will eventually be offered the gift of eternal life.
Don: I don't have any more questions, but I'd like to give you an opportunity, if there's anything we didn't cover, that you feel like you'd like to talk about...
Philip: The process of understanding the changes that need to be made, theologically and even culturally, presents a whole new world for us. The path we are taking is an uncharted one. We are determined to bring all of are doctrines into alignment with the Scriptures. We embrace all Christians everywhere. We are repenting for our carelessness, our arrogance and our self-righteousness. This doesn't mean that we are repenting of who we are but simply the mistakes we have collectively made. We don't discount our history as being invalid. We bring many beautiful aspects of our heritage with us on our journey. Members of the Worldwide Church of God are grateful to be full participants in the Body of Christ.
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