Herbert Armstrong: The Rich Apostle
(Is requiring accountability of finances wrong?)
Back in the 80's, I was searching for God. TV evangelist scandals were commonplace and disgusting. Oral Roberts said God would "call him home" if he didn't receive $8 million dollars by a certain date; Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the epitome of indulgence, basking in the fruits of their Health, Wealth, and Prosperity gospel; and Jimmy Swaggart's alligator-tears-public-repentance seemed more like "weeping and gnashing of teeth" from the realization that his affluent lifestyle was heading down the tubes. I swore that I would never be involved in a church where the religious leaders were obvious con-men who lived a life of kingly splendor at the expense of little old ladies' welfare checks.
Then along came The Plain Truth magazine. I respected it because it didn't "beg for money"1 like those despicable TV evangelists. But even after years of involvement with the Worldwide Church of God, I never realized how I could excuse Herbert W. Armstrong's excesses, even justifying them. After all, he was "God's Apostle"--he needed that Gulfstream II jet to preach the gospel to the world. "God's Apostle" shouldn't be expected to sit at airports like everyone else. So what if he had the Czar of Russia's gold tableware and $28,000 salt and pepper shakers. He needed it to entertain world leaders and the Ambassador College graduates.
I recall a sermon by our Associate Pastor. It was about "quality" and how "God is a God of Quality" and how HWA upheld that standard. He was telling us about how he was serving as an usher during one of the Friday night Ambassador Auditorium Symphony series (where your church dollars were spent entertaining HWA and the rich community with the world's best performers, but where the name "Jesus" was never heard, nor was anyone ever converted). He said a gentleman walked into the auditorium and sarcastically bellowed out, "Armstrong extravagance!!" The Associate Pastor was not amused by this man's outburst.
I also remember some members telling us about their trip to the Pasadena campus. They told us about soap dispensers that would shave off the perfect amount of soap into your hands, and how the swimming pool was the best in the world because it didn't slosh up the sides. They told us of all the marble, gold, crystal, rare wood, costly paintings, etc. and how this place reflected God's love for quality (not Armstrong's greed).2
The Associate Pastor continued his sermon with how we had no right to question "God's Apostle" about the Steuben crystal (often valued at $5,000 or more3) that HWA presented to world leaders. In fact, we had no right to question about how our tithes were used. To question headquarters was to question God (and how dare we?!?)
Thinking back on it, I wondered how I could easily see the greed of Roberts, Bakker and Swaggart, but could overlook these same indulgences and financial abuses in HWA. I ate beans while he dined on filet mignon; I drove a compact car while he owned limos and Rolls Royces; I lived in a small, poorly built home while he lived in mansions with a million dollars worth of art treasures; I shopped at Goodwill for my clothes while he wore expensive Italian suits and $5,000 cufflinks; I sent in tithes and offerings and he didn't tithe at all (the Royal Priesthood a.k.a. "ministry," was exempt). It was okay for HWA to have all these riches4, but it was sinful for me to have them. How could I have held two different values at the same time?? I was putting up my treasures in heaven while HWA was amassing them on earth.
I'm sure that the early apostles could have demanded the best camels and fastest horses to reach the ends of the empire with the gospel message; the finest robes so they would appear respectable; homes fit for a king so they could entertain world leaders, and the richest foods to ensure their health so they could preach the gospel for as long as they could. But did they? Jesus himself could have rightfully demanded these things, but He didn't!5
Accountability is not equal to sin or rebellion. There is nothing wrong with asking for a detailed financial statement--you are not challenging God by doing so. The Church of God's various groups are, after all, corporations, and they should not object (unless they're trying to hide something like unjustifiably high salaries?). If you truly believe that tithes are "God's money," then you have every right to make sure that God's money is being used properly. This does not dishonor Him.
I now attend a small church where I know how much the pastor makes ($24,000/yr.), and how much is spent on utilities, building upkeep, various ministries, etc. ($40,000/yr.) because a detailed financial statement is made public. No one is made to feel guilty for asking how the money is spent. This is how it should be.
Exit & Support Network™
November 4, 2002
We MUST have a larger week-to-week income. We MUST have another $250 to complete the office equipment absolutely necessary. We must have an additional $500 for the Los Angeles fund. God is ABLE—thru you Co-workers—if you give as He makes possible. It will take SACRIFICE. Remember GOD'S work must come FIRST. Double what you have been sending if you can. I ask those who can to send amounts of $50, $100, or $500. Send whatever amount you can, as OFTEN as you can. Stand by me. God bless you! (Herbert W. Armstrong, December 24, 1941 Co-Worker letter)
NOTE: Herbert Armstrong had five luxurious homes filled with art treasurers. (Post-Gazette, Thurs., Nov. 24, 1977, "Worldwide Church of God Amasses Wealth Amid Rising Criticism"). His 1980 income tax returns showed that he gave himself and his wife Ramona an income of $387,755, paid federal taxes of $147,545, and deducted only $37,427 (or just over 9.5 percent) as church contributions. His accountant, Jack Kessler, said HWA gave himself a salary of $500,000 per year in 1981. (Jack Kessler 1981 Letter to Worldwide Church of God Board of Directors). HWA had a number of Swiss bank accounts, many foreign bank accounts, owned considerable wealth and had all his living expenses paid for by the WCG. (Ambassador Report #26, October 1983) His extravagant Ambassador Auditorium was built for $11 million in 1974. (LA Times, January 17, 1986) Also, see ESN's letter to author Janis Hutchinson which mentions more of the "extreme opulence" of HWA.
More about Herbert Armstrong's lavish lifestyle, including Ambassador Auditorium, can be read in "Honey, I Shrunk the Church."
Recommended book: Armstrongism: Religion or Rip-Off? (An Exposé of the Armstrong Modus Operandi) by Marion J. McNair (chapters 2 and 3 give an analysis of Herbert Armstrong's co-worker letters, revealing the propaganda methods he used in order to solicit donors and then con them out of thousands of dollars.)
Footnotes by ESN:
1 While The Plain Truth and other literature was advertised as "free," HWA used propaganda techniques in his Co-Worker letters to get donors and then con them out of thousands of dollars. See chapters 2 and 3 of Armstrongism: Religion or Rip-Off? (An Exposé of the Armstrong Modus Operandi) by Marion J. McNair
2 Several book have been written about Herbert W. Armstrong and his luxurious and extravagant lifestyle; e. g., see: The Armstrong Empire: A Look at the Worldwide Church of God Empire by Joseph Hopkins, p. 183, and Armstrongism: Religion or Rip-Off? (An Exposé of the Armstrong Modus Operandi) by Marion J. McNair, chapters 1 and 4.
3 Armstrongism: Religion or Rip-Off? (An Exposé of the Armstrong Modus Operandi) by Marion J. McNair, chapter 1, p. 5
4 HWA acquired many riches for himself with members' money. He once purchased a $8,000 ice bucket when the Work was supposedly in "dire straights. (Charles Hunting on The Clyde Thomas Show, WKIS, Orlando, FL, 1988.)
5 Jesus was poor, not rich. See Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58