Bonnie Sloan is angry. And the healing process has been going on for 20 years.
"I remember crying, and it was a very hard time for us," said Sloan, 45, of Decatur about church leaders whose actions dismantled the Worldwide Church of God, which was founded by Herbert W. Armstrong.
"I hold those men accountable for what they did in shattering people's faith and splitting up families."
Armstrong established the Radio Church of God in 1934. The Worldwide Church of God grew from these roots. At one time, the church had 725 congregations in 57 countries.
Upon Armstrong's death, his handpicked successor, Joseph Tkach Sr., began to revise church doctrine. Changes to the doctrine continued under Joseph Tkach Jr., who took over the denomination in 1995.
Sloan said many of the thousands of members of the denomination still wanted to follow the doctrines and didn't agree with the changes. A handful of men forced the changes onto the members, and if they didn't accept the changes, they were asked to leave, she said.
Sloan remembers breaking down and crying when Tkach Sr. began unraveling the church's doctrines in a three-hour video sermon in the spring of 1995.
"Mr. Tkach said we could eat pork and shellfish and other unclean meats and didn't have to follow the dietary laws in Leviticus. And we can worship on Sunday instead of Saturday, which was considered the Sabbath. Even tithing was not necessary anymore and only voluntary," Sloan said, and that's when the church began hemorrhaging members.
"It hit me in the face, it wasn't our church anymore," Sloan said. "I didn't know what to do or where to go."
Sloan was led to the Philadelphia Church of God in St. Charles, Mo., a breakaway church. She drove back and forth for nearly five years.
In 2000, the Philadelphia Church of God was re-established in Springfield, which Sloan now attends.
Sloan used to be a second generation member of the Worldwide Church of God. She and at least 25 other people from the Decatur area attended the church's congregation in Springfield.
She said her father had joined the church and was baptized in the late 1960s. Her mother, however, wanted to remain true to her Baptist roots and didn't attend the church.
At age 13, Sloan began to attend church more with her father. She joined and was baptized in her early 20s at the Springfield's congregation of the Worldwide Church of God. She raised her son and daughter in the faith.
"I thought Mr. Armstrong was a very good leader of the church and inspired all of us. He did a fabulous job in taking care of the membership. And there is no man in this present century who has done as much in spreading the true gospel of what Christ taught," she said.
When Joseph Tkach Sr. took over as pastor general, Sloan said many of the doctrines of the church were gradually changed.
"I remember having a hard time understanding it," she said. "Even my minister - didn't agree with Tkach's leadership and tried to shield our local congregation."
Seeds of change
Shortly after Armstrong's death, church leaders began to realize his doctrines weren't biblical, said Paul Kroll, communication officer for the Worldwide Church of God based in Glendora, Calif., during a phone interview.
"I can use several examples, where Mr. Armstrong thought he was the only person preaching the true gospel," said Kroll.
"He required the church to keep the seventh day Sabbath by resting on Sundays, which we no longer teach; he also wanted the church to keep those festivals of ancient Israel under the Old Covenant."
Kroll was a follower of Armstrong, joining the church in 1958. However, things changed after Armstrong's death, he said, and Armstrong's beliefs became outdated.
"Mr. Armstrong claimed to know when Christ would return. But he was wrong in the 1930s when Christ didn't return, and again saying Christ would return in 1972; you saw it didn't happen," Kroll said.
Another longtime member of the Worldwide Church of God, Sam Sutton of Springfield, believed in Armstrong's messages and strong faith in God.
"Mr. Herbert Armstrong's doctrines came from the Bible. His principles and beliefs came from the Bible, and he had a way of making the Bible come alive," Sutton said.
"His legacy was to continue God's work and have Mr. Tkach continue in his footsteps. Mr. Tkach pledged that he would do so.
"Changes began to surface in Tkach's administration and attitudes on prophesizing began to wane as the concentration shifted to other areas," Sutton added. "They had an agenda from the very start and implemented it ever so slowly so as not to cause concerns among the brethren."
Kroll admits the majority of members did not want to change and saw Armstrong as an apostle who had a special calling from God.
The church did lose 60 percent to 70 percent of their membership in the United States as several splinter churches formed such as the Philadelphia Church of God and United Church of God, Kroll said.
The reborn Worldwide Church of God has 64,000 members with 860 congregations.
"I think we are doing well and moving ahead in Christ and thankful for the changes that freed us from such erroneous ideas," Kroll said.
Recovering lost ground
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Church of God is making progress in continuing Armstrong's legacy, according to Shane Granger, marketing director for the Philadelphia Church of God headquarters in Edmond, Okla.
Their television program "Key of David" is the third highest rated religious program, and the flagship magazine "The Trumpet" has a growing circulation of more than 325,000 and is published in five languages. An Armstrong International Cultural Foundation continues with Armstrong's legacy of performing arts in Edmond.
Sheila Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 421-7963.