This article first appeared in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 32, number 06 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The Open Letter’s final request of the LC and LSM leadership pertains to their history of resorting to litigation to clear themselves of charges made against them in evangelical countercult books. The following three paragraphs include the entire text of this request and bring the Open Letter to a close:
If the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “local churches” regard evangelical Christians as fellow believers, we request that they publicly renounce the use of lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits against evangelical Christians to answer criticisms or resolve conflicts. The New Testament strongly discourages the use of lawsuits to settle disputes among Christians (see 1 Corinthians 6:1–8).
If the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “local churches” do not regard evangelical Christian churches, organizations, and ministries as legitimate Christian entities, we ask that they publicly resign their membership in all associations of evangelical churches and ministries.
In either case, we respectfully request that the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the “local churches” discontinue their practice of using litigation and threatened litigation to answer criticisms or settle disputes with Christian organizations and individuals.
The importance of this final section needs to be clearly understood. As I stated previously, I believe that, in addition to the mere fact that they are different, the LC’s initially contentious and ultimately litigious response to their critics has generated such animus that it helps explain the lack of fairness and careful scholarship that an otherwise able group of scholars and researchers have demonstrated in the three preceding sections of the Open Letter. Since I have been an active member of the countercult community during this entire period, have interacted broadly with other members regarding this matter, and for decades was of one mind with those members about the LC, I believe I know whereof I speak.
We who are members of the evangelical countercult and apologetics communities have responded with righteous indignation to the LC’s attempts to “muzzle our constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech,” but we have been shamefully slow to respond to documentable instances of defamation committed in our own ranks. Again, I know this from experience, and it is not something I am proud of.
In 1985, J. Gordon Melton, founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, published An Open Letter concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and The God-Men Controversy. Melton, who previously had been an advocate of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project and was still not ready to write it off, began the open letter portion of his booklet by reporting:
During the past year, I, like many of you have become concerned about the lawsuit between the Local Church led by Witness Lee and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP), Neil T. Duddy and the publisher of their book, The God-Men. I was at first concerned that a Christian body, i.e., the Local Church, would take fellow Christians to court, until I discovered that the leaders in the Church had exhausted all less severe means to have the book withdrawn and its errors acknowledged.
Recently, I was asked by the Local Church to begin a more rigorous investigation of its life and belief than I had been able to in previous years while working on my Encyclopedia of American Religions. I commenced that investigation in 1984, and some of the findings are embodied in the enclosed paper which I offer for your consideration.
Part of my study of the Local Church involved the reading of most of the published writings of Witness Lee and the lengthy depositions of Neil T. Duddy and Brooks Alexander (of SCP). The experience proved among the more painful of my Christian life. As I began to check the quotes of Witness Lee used in Duddy’s book, I found that The God-Men had consistently taken sentences from Lee’s writings and, by placing them in a foreign context, made them to say just the opposite of what Lee intended. This was done while ignoring the plain teachings and affirmations concerning the great truths of the Christian faith found throughout Lee’s writings. I also took note of the ludicrous attempt to equate the Local Church’s practice of pray-reading with the use of mantras in Eastern religions. They bear no resemblance whatsoever.
As I read the depositions, especially that of Duddy, I was appalled to discover the number of substantive and libelous charges made against Lee in The God-Men which were based entirely upon the unconfirmed account of but a single hostile ex-member. Time and again, taking the word of a former member, Duddy did not seek any independent verification of alleged incidents before making serious charges of financial mismanagement, psychological disturbances among Local Church members, and illegal acts by the Local Church attempting to harass former members.
Having been a supporter of SCP, especially of its attempt to provide the Christian community with quality material on alternative religions, I was genuinely shaken as my research proceeded. I was concerned that such a parody on the life of a group of fellow Christians had been written, that it had been sponsored by such an organization as SCP, and then published by such a reputable publisher as InterVarsity Press. I was more shaken, however, by the obvious implications of the ethics involved in the production of such a book. The mistakes and misrepresentations in the book are so frequent and so consistent that it strains credulity to suggest that The God-Men is merely the product of poor scholarship.
It was my unhappy task to have to present these findings to the court in Oakland, California, on May 28 during the trial against Duddy and the German publisher.1
These were staggering claims. SCP was a highly respected countercult organization at the time, considered by many of us to be a model of careful research and thoughtful critique of new religious movements. If Melton could document his allegations it should have sent shock waves through the entire countercult community and compelled us to reexamine our methods. It would have been even more devastating in this case than subsequent biased treatments of the LC in the evangelical press, because up to the publishing of The God-Men (as well as The Mind Benders) the LC had not sued anyone. It would not have been their litigiousness that fueled the bad will against them. It would have had to come down merely to the fact that they were different and disagreeable. (Disagreeable, that is, when it came to criticisms of their movement—i.e., they didn’t respond graciously enough to suit us when we misrepresented their theology, maligned their characters, and falsely accused them of being a cult or aberrant Christian group! Herein lies most visibly the moral inconsistency of the countercult movement’s longstanding complaint against the LC.)
In fact, Melton did document his claims; not exhaustively, but sufficiently to establish their veracity. He convincingly exonerated Lee of the following charges made against him in The God-Men: “(1) denying propositional revelation, (2) disdaining any necessity in the keeping of the moral law (specifically the Ten Commandments) and, in effect, leading people away from biblical ethics, and (3) depreciating thinking, study, and the role of the mind in reading the Bible. And [sic] (4) in the place of biblical authority, Lee has placed himself as a [sic] oracle of new revelation.”2 The reader can access Melton’s booklet online and see if this is not so.3
How much affect did Melton’s booklet have on the countercult community’s perception of SCP and the LC? I was not aware of it making any difference at all. I recall that I looked at it briefly when I received it, but because Melton had come to the defense of cults in the past, because SCP had such a respectable track record, and because CRI by this time had a long and contentious history with the LC, I found it hard to believe the evidence that was before my eyes and so I mentally filed it conveniently away under the category “J. Gordon Melton—Cult Apologist.” “Surely, Melton has it wrong,” I thought. “If only I had the time to follow up on this myself.”
My decision not to look further into the matter constituted willful ignorance. Furthermore, since I was in a position to influence CRI’s position on the LC and to decide what we would or would not publish on them, I shared in the culpability of other countercult ministries and publishers.
Had I been more conscientious I could have read Judge Leo G. Seyranian’s statement of decision in the God-Men case. I have read it more recently, and you can read it too, since it is accessible online.4 It is so completely damning to SCP that it boggles the mind that anyone could read it and still support the veracity of The God-Men. Reading this decision in and of itself should be sufficient to cause a paradigm shift for anyone in the countercult community who has naively believed SCP’s account of the trial, which is routinely repeated in countercult circles.5 In evaluating the evidence, Judge Seyranian wrote:
The plaintiffs indicated at the outset of this trial and hearing that they intended to establish “actual malice” and the Court is satisfied that they have done so. The evidence indicated that in almost all instances where the defendants purported to quote from Witness Lee’s statements they did in fact distort and take out of context such statements by Witness Lee in order to arrive at a predetermined result or conclusion.…In addition, the evidence has established that the defendants also distorted the sociological model of religious conversion by Lofland and Stark in order to attempt to fabricate a theory of deceptive recruitment by Local Church leaders and members allegedly based upon the plaintiff Witness Lee’s teachings. The testimony of Dr. Rodney Stark, one of the model’s authors, convinces the Court that the distortion was deliberate and intentional.…Furthermore, the deposition testimony of Duddy, Alexander, Buckley and Sire confirm that the defamatory statements were published in some instances knowing they were false and in other instances with a reckless disregard of the truth or falsity thereof.
The Court agrees with the statement of the witness
Dr. Rodney Stark when he stated:
“If all that the defendants were to do was write a book even though real nasty to Witness Lee’s theology, we wouldn’t be here today because that is fair in our American Society. You can do that. But the second you start talking…naming names and events, discrediting events, sexual hanky-panky, financial hanky-panky, or indeed getting to a certain point of quoting a man’s theological statements diametrically opposed to what the man is saying, then I think we have…We are not talking about religion, we are talking about truth, we are talking about libel, we are talking about fairness, we are talking about a whole constellation of things.” (Tr. pp. 171–172)
The court summed up the damaging allegations made against the LC in The God- Men as follows:
All of the false statements set forth above were defamatory in that the same convey to the readers that the plaintiffs Witness Lee and William Freeman are leaders of a “cult,” and the Church in Anaheim is such a “cult”. The false statements also convey to the readers that plaintiffs are engaged in a program of deceptive recruiting practices that prey upon weak and vulnerable people in order to bring them under the plaintiffs’ total subjugation; that plaintiffs control every area of Local Church members’ lives through the use of fear and other various techniques of mental manipulation and social isolation.
The statements also convey to the readers that plaintiffs are teaching principles that allow, encourage, or condone immoral conduct; also, that plaintiffs are exploiting these people financially for plaintiffs’ own gain and further that those who leave are persecuted and threatened with disaster.6
It has been commonly repeated in the countercult community that the LC maliciously dealt SCP a blow that SCP never fully recovered from. No, to be fair to the LC, SCP dealt a debilitating blow to itself by publishing a defamatory book. Not every countercult ministry or apologist that shared SCP’s theological conclusions regarding the LC was completely supportive of The God-Men. For example, Walter Martin, the Passantinos, and I were unaware of any support for the psychological, sociological, and criminal charges made against the LC in The God-Men and we were uncomfortable generally with nontheological approaches to the cults (hence the strictly theological approach to the LC we took in our own publications7). But because we held theological conclusions close to those of SCP, we suspended our disbelief regarding their other charges and supported them in the matter of the lawsuit, suppressing truth for the sake of a common cause and camaraderie among colleagues, and thus partaking in their sin against the LC. Furthermore, we were no less guilty of falsely labeling as heretics true brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR)
When I first heard about the LC lawsuit of Harvest House, Ankerberg, and Weldon, the LC had not yet approached us for dialogue and I, like virtually everyone else in the countercult community, thought: “Here we go again after all these years. It looks like Witness Lee’s death hasn’t changed anything. The LC are still trying to silence their critics.”
I read the disputed sections in ECNR—the introduction, appendix, and the chapter on the LC—expecting to find some vindication for my longtime friend and colleague John Weldon. However, neither the loyalty generated by our many years of collaboration, nor the deep respect I held for him as a Christian and researcher, nor the antipathy I felt just as strongly at that moment as I ever had for the LC, could blind me to the fact that the LC had a legitimate grievance with the book. Perhaps no one who has read these sections of ECNR has more experience than I in evaluating the worthiness of manuscripts on cults and new religions for publication, and this manuscript would have never made it into the pages of the Christian Research Journal without a thorough rewrite.
I noted throughout the introduction a lack of care in the definition of terms and the categorization of groups that was at the least imprecise, inconsistent, and unfair, and that could very well be construed as libelous. The authors wander all over the theological and sociological landscapes in search of a definition of “cult,” never finding one they are completely happy with but never entirely rejecting one either. They wind up with an extremely broad definition based on disparate classification models (biblical, religious, behavioral, and sociological) that changes somewhat from one time they employ it to the next. In such a wide and elastic definitional net one is bound to catch groups that do not fit all of the descriptions, and they will predictably and understandably resent being associated with groups that they themselves abhor.
The authors acknowledge that some groups should be classified as aberrational Christian groups rather than as cults because they do not espouse full-blown heresy, and they mention Oneness Pentecostalism as a possible example of this (something we at CRI would not agree to).8 Nonetheless, they could not find it within their criteria to classify the LC—which even critics generally recognize do not embrace the full-blown modalism that Oneness groups hold—in this less-malignant category. Their classifications are therefore shown to be at best arbitrary and at worst malicious, arising out of something other than the demands of their own defined criteria.
Contrary to what is commonly repeated in the countercult community,9 the LC’s complaint in this lawsuit — and this was also true with the two previous ones — was never that they were called a cult on theological grounds. Their complaint was rather that the book (1) identifies the LC as a cult, (2) defines a cult as a religious group claiming compatibility with Christianity “whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity” (emphasis added),10 and (3) includes abhorrent and even criminal behavior as examples of what those ethical violations might be.
A section in the book particularly grievous to the LC is the introduction’s twelve-point description of the common characteristics of a cult.11 In addition to rank heresy, “systematic misinterpretation of the Bible,” occultism, a rejection of reason, and other theological and spiritual offenses, the list of cult characteristics includes:
- “a destructive authoritarianism and sanctions-oriented mentality”;
- “members are often subject to psychological, physical and spiritual harm through cult dynamics that reject biblical, ethical and pastoral standards. Related to this, there is often distortion of the biblical view of human sexuality or the degradation or perversion of sexuality”;
- “paranoid or persecution conscious, and they may be oppositional or alienated from the culture, having beliefs, values and practices opposed to those in the dominant culture”; and
- intimidation or deception of both members and outsiders, often including fraud.
The defense that Harvest House, Ankerberg, and Weldon maintained, which was ultimately accepted by the Texas Appellate Court, was first that nowhere in the book are the specific immoral and criminal behaviors that the LC find so offensive explicitly attributed to the LC. The chapter on them is very brief and doesn’t go into those areas. Second, certain qualifications and clarifications are made in the book that allow for the fact that these reprehensible traits are not equally and universally shared by cults. For example, when they introduce their twelve characteristics of cults, Ankerberg and Weldon state: “Not all groups have all the characteristics and not all groups have every characteristic in equal measure….”12 Finally and most importantly, the defense was made by the defendants and granted by the court that, at bottom, the LC was objecting to being called a cult, but since ECNR “centers on doctrinal and apologetic issues of theology and apologetics” and primarily uses the term cult in that sense, the court has no business ruling on theological matters.
Whether a court agreed to it or not, this reasoning is simply false. Every definition that ECNR offers for “cult” includes practices as well as beliefs. As we’ve seen, those practices are said to violate biblical standards of ethics, and the specific examples that the book provides to illustrate what it means by this include all the despicable and criminal behaviors the LC objected to being associated with. The implication of this ruling is that normally actionable defamation can be committed with impunity as long as the defamation is packed into the use of a religious term.
As the LC was appealing their case to the Texas Supreme Court, CRI and Answers in Action issued a joint statement that said in part:
The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR) has gone outside the bounds of both responsible theological analysis and responsible public accusation by using the term cult as a pretext for otherwise legally libelous language. If you look at the “LIBEL” section of the filing, you will see that the objectionable characteristics included “physical harm,” “fraud or deception concerning fundraising and financial costs,” “drug smuggling and other criminal activity, including murder,” “denied their followers medical access,” “encouraged prostitution,” “sometimes raped women,” “molested children,” “beaten their disciples,” “human sacrifice,” and “child sacrifice”—none of these criminal and abhorrent acts are tied inexorably by ECNR to religious or theological contexts.…13
What about the previously mentioned qualifications and clarifications that Ankerberg and Weldon made? First, people who believe these qualifications allow that the LC may be innocent of all the criminal and contemptible behaviors mentioned in the book simply have not looked at the wording carefully enough: “Not all groups have all the characteristics and not all groups have every characteristic in equal measure….” (emphases added). It is not enough to reply that the book does not explicitly lay any one abhorrent behavior at the door of the LC if it does in fact clearly indicate that an unspecified percentage of specified bad behaviors do belong there. We may not know that the LC for a fact is guilty of pedophilia, kidnapping, destroying families, and so forth, but we do know from the book that they may be guilty of any one of them and are guilty of some such behaviors. Imprecise allegations can still result in character assassination and should therefore still be considered defamatory. The Christian public may look at you and not know whether you’re guilty of homicide, rape, or theft, but if a reputable Christian publisher assures them that you’re guilty of at least one of these crimes, then your reputation is still injured.
Furthermore, the half-hearted qualification that “not all cults are equally culpable when it comes to unsavory teachings and practices but enough are” (emphasis added)14 does not exonerate any of the groups in the encyclopedia of being culpable for unsavory practices. It only allows that an unspecified number of them are not equally culpable with the more extreme offenders. Such vague qualifications not only do not protect some groups so labeled, they thoroughly slander all labeled groups. For example, if someone were to tell you that one of the twelve elders in your church was a pedophile who had escaped conviction and incarceration on a technicality, it might actually be the case that your child would be safe with eleven of the twelve elders. But you, as a parent who does not know which one is guilty, would be irresponsible if you left your child in the care of any of the twelve elders. Eleven elders have been slandered while only one elder is guilty. This is what ECNR has done to the LC.
Finally, it seems worth noting that the authors excluded “criminal cults” from their twelve-point definition of a cult.15 This means that their “kinder, gentler” definition of a cult is the one they give in the book; that is, this is as far as they were really willing to go in the way of concession and qualification.
Members of the countercult community who take comfort in, or feel vindicated by, the Texas Appellate Court’s decision can only rightfully do so if they were equally discomfited, and engaged in commensurate soul searching and examining of their own methods, after the Mind Benders retraction and the God-Men ruling. Two out of three court cases vindicated the LC of the charges against them, and the one that didn’t based its ruling on a dubious interpretation of the law, not on the basis that the allegations made against the LC were actually true. In other words, even in the ECNR case the defendants admitted under oath that they had no basis for associating the LC with any of the contemptible and criminal behaviors they included in their definition of cult. In effect, they simply succeeded at arguing that they should be free to bear false witness (i.e., to break the Ninth Commandment) as long as they do so in the context of defining a group as a cult. In light of Jesus’ mandate that His followers be the light of the world, it is hardly a cause for celebration when they convince a worldly court to hold them to a lower standard than it holds the world.
Why Is the LC So “Touchy”?
The question should still be addressed: why is the LC so “touchy” about being the subject of a one-and-one-half-page chapter in a book, especially when the chapter does not specifically accuse them of the detestable behaviors and practices that are only spoken of more generally elsewhere in the book? Why go to the trouble and expense of a lawsuit, especially when Scripture exhorts Christians not to take each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1–8)? That is a reasonable question, one that I was still asking myself well after we entered into dialogue with the LC.
After my tour of China, however, I understood. I shared meals with Christian brothers who served prison terms after authorities were emboldened to take action against them by ECNR and the Appeals Court’s ruling. For Christians in America, being labeled a cult member may only result in humiliation; for Christians in Asia, it can result in persecution to an extent we never have to worry about here.
The LC’s ability to carry on their mission in their home country is radically affected by whether the government considers them a socially disruptive cult or a socially responsible religion. The status of the LC is still very much in the air and they have both advocates and detractors in high places. And, as previously mentioned, Hank and I were assured by some of these government officials that when the Western press publishes on any sect operating in China, the government pays close attention and it definitely can affect their policy. The LC simply cannot afford to sit back passively and allow themselves to be labeled a sociological cult in the Western press.
None of this—including Hank’s filing an amicus brief on behalf of the LC16 — should be taken to mean that CRI supported the LC’s lawsuit against Harvest House, Ankerberg, and Weldon. The truth is that we thought it was a mistake, we sought to facilitate understanding and dialogue between the parties, and we consistently advised the LC against it. What all of this should be taken to mean, however, is that we believe there are mitigating circumstances behind the LC’s legal actions that should evoke greater understanding and willingness to extend grace than the countercult community has thus far demonstrated.
Not only is there the situation in Asia to consider, but also the fact that the LC always took legal action as a last resort when the parties absolutely refused to meet with them as Christian brothers. Indeed, Harvest House actually sued the LC first and accused the LC of “harassing” them with their continued appeals to meet and discuss their differences. This is not just the LC’s version of what happened: the entire communication between the two parties is documented in correspondence, and we possess copies of all of it.
A Long History of Litigious Behavior?
The LC therefore has only brought suit against Christians three times, and in each case the circumstances were such that some appreciation for the dilemma the LC faced is warranted. I know, however, that if I stop here many people in the countercult community will feel that I have not fully addressed the issue. After the Christian Research Journal ran a news piece on the LC in 2007,17 my old friend and colleague Eric Pement wrote a letter to the editor in which he raised the following concern:
The article suggests that the “local churches” gained an undeserved reputation for litigation due to just two or three lawsuits over a 40-year span. It is common knowledge among countercult ministries—including CRI and Answers in Action—that the “local churches” often threatened litigation against Christians who criticized them. Since many nonprofit ministries run with limited budgets, these ministries usually backed down, issued retractions, or replaced the offending materials without a court action technically being filed. In a few cases, the critics ignored the threats or prevailed in hearings.
Legal action was threatened against Christian Literature Crusade in 1973 over the book The Ecclesiology of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee; against CRI in 1977; against Christian Herald Books in 1979 over The Lure of the Cults; against Regal Books in 1979; against Moody Bible Institute, against Salem Kirban, and against Eternity magazine, all in 1980; against InterVarsity Press in 1983; against Tyndale Press in 1985; against Moody Press in 1991; against [the late] Jim Moran and Light of Truth Ministries in 1995, 2000, and 2001; against Bereans Apologetics Research Ministry in 2002; and against Daniel Azuma in 2003.
Most of the information above comes from an article published by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in 1983 (driven into bankruptcy by litigation expenses from the “local churches” from 1980 to 1985) and an article published by Jim Moran in 2003. Moran’s copyrights are now owned by The Church in Fullerton, which forbids reprinting his article.
I doubt that the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses combined have issued as many lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against evangelical Christian publishers.
In response to Pement, I know for a fact that he is wrong about the LC threatening legal action against CRI in 1977 (or in any other year for that matter). I also am familiar with several of the other situations he recounts, and my recollection does not agree with the information he is using. However, I was unable to address all of the situations he referenced and so I turned to the LC for their account of this history. They submitted to me a twenty-four page (plus enclosures) detailed and documented response to Pement’s allegations that fully satisfied me in the matter. They have not yet decided whether to make their reply public and, if they do, they would want to do further work on it, but they did give me permission to reproduce the following portions. I believe the following excerpts helpfully sum up the more detailed information contained in the document and put the allegation of “a history of litigiousness” into perspective:
We want to emphasize that the controlling principles of all our responses to adverse criticism over the last thirty years have been the same in every case:
- We always first tried to take the way of going to our Christian brothers to reconcile our differences through peaceful fellowship as the Bible instructs in Matthew 18:15-20 and 2 Timothy 2:25-26. In some cases we vainly sought such Christian fellowship for a year or more before any other action was taken.
- If only doctrinal differences were expressed, writing and fellowship, not litigation, were the only appropriate options.
- The accusation of being a “cult” or of possessing the horrendous practices or the despicable sociological attributes that became the hallmark of cults as they were defined post 1970 is clearly outside the realm of doctrinal disputes. This type of accusation creates such fear that it is impossible to erase its effect through writing or speaking. The strong prejudice engendered by the “cult” label caused fellow believers to turn away from us and deny us a fair hearing. In the three extreme situations when we were forced to take the way of litigation to address such charges, many evangelicals assailed us for unchristian behavior, yet they defended those who deliberately gave false witness in an effort to destroy their fellow believers. It is ironic that as we were rejected as being outside the faith, we were castigated for not dealing with these matters within the household of faith. The fact is that when such accusations are made with deliberate falsity, they are properly the subject of legal recourse. Seeing no other alternative, we sought redress from secular authorities with the hope of receiving more righteous consideration than we received from the Christian publishers and authors who rebuffed our attempts at Christian fellowship.
- We did go to talk with authors and publishers who had republished (sometimes verbatim) the original falsehoods of the earlier publications. Our intention was to appeal to their conscience, not to threaten litigation. This is overwhelmingly borne out in the cases in this present study. The fact that the local churches had been successful in proving the falsehood in both of the original books that many of them relied upon may have raised a fear of litigation in their mind.
We do not claim to be perfect, but our principle was not to threaten but to correct a wrong understanding. As this documented study demonstrates, for others to report those conversations as outright threats by us is simply false. Pement, who raised this issue, should recall that when his organization, JPUSA, published a demeaning and false tract about the local churches,18 two members (including one of the authors of this work) representing the local churches traveled to Chicago and attempted to dialogue with them. In that dialogue, no conclusion was reached, no threat of litigation was made, and their tract was not withdrawn. How does Pement account for omitting this incident in his account of our dealings with our critics? How did Pement reconcile his own experience with us with the accusations he has repeated without any personal knowledge?
When we finally did appeal to the courts for relief concerning the two earlier books, we did not do so lightly or without cause. In this country, the ministry, the churches and many individual members suffered greatly because of the false accusations contained in God-Men and Mindbenders, accusations that were repeated in at least three hundred other books, articles and broadcasts (God-Men was even translated into Chinese and circulated in China). The growth of the churches was stopped and the acceptance of Brother Lee’s ministry was severely damaged. Families suffered estrangement, divorces were caused, jobs were lost, some members were physically assaulted, our children were confronted with the “cult” charge, and many members were exposed to embarrassment and humiliation because of those two books. But the suffering in the United States pales in comparison to what the local churches and individuals suffered because of the “cult” accusation in countries where freedom of religion was not protected. In those places, members suffered arrest, imprisonment and worse. How could we not act? Because of these factors we were forced [to] file lawsuits in the United States when no other avenue was open to us. This tragic history was also before us when the decision was made to pursue the more recent litigation against Harvest House and its authors. Some of the same things were beginning to happen again as a result of their book. We could not tolerate the damage that would come to the churches and individuals in the countries alluded to above without acting to prevent it.
Rather than promoting these unfounded comparisons, it might be more appropriate for Pement and others making such accusations to ask how many lawsuits Christian publishers have filed against other Christians. The answer is that many major Evangelical publishers have filed numerous lawsuits to recover financial losses from other Christian and secular parties. This information is publicly available to those who would look for it. Publishers’ lawsuits have been mostly over collecting bad debts from believers, matters that fall clearly under the proscription of 1 Corinthians 6. Certainly there must have been many threats of litigation that preceded the actual filing of these suits. Does no one see the hypocrisy in condemning the three lawsuits of one Christian group while turning a blind eye to the more numerous actions of mainline Christian publishers? Harvest House has in fact engaged in more litigation against fellow Christians than we have. Has anyone ever criticized Harvest House for suing Christian bookstore owners? Furthermore, Harvest House sued us while we were asking them to meet with us. Has anyone ever publicly criticized them for initiating the use of litigation in our dispute?19
To sum up: what the countercult community perceives to be litigious behavior on the part of the LC can in most cases be documented to be merely an effort to meet with and appeal to countercult writers and publishers to correct false allegations that they have published against a Christian group. The countercult community also needs to look long and hard at the inconsistency of its strong condemnation and bitter resentment of the LC for taking legal action against Christians to protect the freedom, ministries, and reputations of its people vis-a-vis the countercult communities’ seeming indifference about some of its own publishers taking legal action against Christians to protect their financial interests, for these latter cases more closely parallel the kinds of situations Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 (see, e.g., v. 7).
To preserve his freedom, ministry, and reputation, Paul “appealed to Caesar.” This is how the LC view and justify their last-resort decisions to take legal action three times over the past thirty years. Even if we don’t agree with them, we need the humility to recognize that we have never had to make such hard decisions—with so many consequences for devout Christians’ lives—as these brothers in Christ have had to face.
- Gordon Melton, An Open Letter concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and The God-Men Controversy (Santa Barbara, CA: The Institute for the Study of American Religion, 1985), 1–3.
- Ibid., 14.
- See, e.g., http://www.apologeticsindex.org/363-spiritual-counterfeits-project.
- “Statement of Decision—Lee v. Duddy re: The God-Men by Neil Duddy and the SCP,” filed June 27, 1985, in the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Alameda, Leon Seyranian, Judge of the Superior Court, 28, 31. (http://www.contendingforthefaith.com/libel-litigations/god-men/decision/completeText.html.)
- See, e.g., Walter Martin, gen. ed., with Gretchen Passantino and the Research Staff of the Christian Research Institute, The New Cults (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House, 1980), appendix.
- John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), XXII. In their entry on Oneness Pentecostalism (OP), the authors make a case for classifying OP as a cult, “if not always in every way in every church” (375). But this indecisiveness about the status of OP merely provides another example of their difficulty at settling on definitions for the descriptive categories they use and at consistently placing groups in those categories.
- See, e.g., Ken Walker, “Former Local Church Critics Change Stance,” Charisma, June 2009, 20, where Kurt Van Gorden is quoted as saying, “John Weldon should be able to call any group a cult when it fits his theological definition.”
- Ankerberg and Weldon, XXII.
- Ibid., XXIII—XXIV.
- Ibid., XXIII.
- “Statement from Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action: Re: Our Amicus Filings on Behalf of the Local Churches,” Position Statement: PSL001, 1–2.
- Ankerberg and Weldon, XXVI.
- Ibid., XXIII.
- Hank filed this brief first, because people who had become friends asked him for his help; second, because he deeply believed what he stated in the brief, that they are not a cult; and third and most importantly, because filing the brief might possibly help curtail persecution of the LC in Asia.
- Douglas LeBlanc, “Local Churches Win Some Allies among Former Critics,” Christian Research Journal 30, 3 (2007): 6–8, 44 (http://www.equip.org/articles/local-church-wins-someallies-among-former-critics).
- [The following footnote belongs to the LC response to Pement and appears in their document at the point noted in my quotation here.] “Cult of the Month: The Local Church” published in 1975 by JPUSA both as a “Cornerstone Magazine” article by Eric Pement and as a pamphlet. It has been republished by others on the Internet from time to time. Pamphlet is on file in our office.
- Defense and Confirmation Project, “The Facts That Belie Charges of ‘Litigiousness by the Local Churches to Silence and Control What Is Written about Them,’” unpublished manuscript, 2008, 2–3, 23.