Thursday, January 12, 2006

A cult is a cult, of course, of course

Several years ago, right after getting married, my wife and I joined Victory Baptist Temple in Elyria, OH. It was a different kind of church culture for me, but out of my love for my new bride I decided to submit myself to it. Several months later they held a large-scale women’s conference. Laura, being the giving person that she is, wanted to have the women from her home church in Medina attend. It was a learning experience for them, too; it was a lot stricter than even they were used to, and they were independent Baptists as well. At one point one of the women, a relatively new Christian, had to use the bathroom, so she left the auditorium. Upon finishing her business she tried to re-enter, but was told that no, she now had to wait in the hallway until the meeting was over. This particular woman (whose name I won’t use) was a bit emotional anyway, and she freaked out. “What is this, a cult?” she exclaimed.

Interesting question. What is a cult? The word gets bandied about quite freely these days. The Moonies are a cult, the Catholic Church is a cult, the Word of Faith movement is a cult… cult, cult, cult. Say it so many times in a row and the word loses all meaning. Most of the teachers I’ve listened to and most of the movements I’ve been involved with in my life have been labeled as a cult by someone at some point in time. "The Pope is the antichrist.” Yeah, sure. Tell me another one, jack. Riddle me this, Batman- how can someone who teaches people to love Jesus more be the Antichrist? That dog don’t hunt.

"Cults are claimed to be deceitful. They are claimed to be harmful to their members. They are claimed to be undermining American values. Cults are claimed to be just about every bad thing in the book these days, and with the pervasive images of Manson and Jim Jones hanging over us, any group that is called a cult is immediately associated with those two people." ---J. Gordon Melton.

There are many definitions of the word “cult.”
· A devotion to a particular person or thing is labeled a cult.
· A small group in tension with an established religious body.
· A small, recently created, religious organization which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovative group- a cult in this sense may simply be a new religious movement on its way to becoming a denomination.
· Any religious group which accepts most but not all of the historical Christian doctrines (the divinity of Jesus, virgin birth, the Trinity, salvation, etc.). The implication is that the cult's theology is invalid; they teach heresy.

All of these definitions were culled from the vast mines of the Internet. However, the vast majority of people who hear the word think of something or someone bad. There is no neutral definition of the word in the minds of average Americans. Cult=Jim Jones. 28 years after Jonestown the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has entered the popular lexicon. So if a group is labeled a cult, whether or not they actually are, they are marked for life.

In the fall of 1985 I was a college student at Lorain County Community College here in Elyria. As part of my time there I hooked up with a group of Christian students that met once a week to study the Bible. One of those students was a man named Olvin Smith. We met in the cafeteria just to talk one day, and in the course of the conversation I asked what church he attended. He answered that he fellowshipped with a group that simply called themselves “The Church In Cleveland.” Hmm, hadn’t heard of that one before. Tell me more. He didn’t just tell me, he invited me to a home meeting so I could see for myself.

About 15 people met in the living room of one Tim Miller. The singing was exuberant and the spirits of the people there were alive. They sang hymns that I recognized, although they had changed the words; and they used a Bible version I had never seen before, called the Recovery Version. It was different from anything I had seen before, and I wasn’t sure what to think about how they practiced their faith, but one thing was certain- they loved Jesus. I knew that without a doubt.

Later on I learned more about this group of people. They were part of a larger movement of Christians that called themselves the Lord’s Recovery. There belief was that church life had become so degraded in the past several hundred years that the proper way of meeting had to be recovered. And the Lord’s instrument for that recovery was an elderly Chinese man named Witness Lee. Witness Lee was a follower/disciple/co-worker of Watchman Nee, whose books were readily available in Christian bookstores; but Brother Lee wasn’t experiencing the same acceptance that Watchman Nee was. In fact, the Lord’s Recovery was considered by some as bearing the scarlet letter of Christianity- they were a CULT. (Insert ominous-sounding movie soundtrack here.)

Well, a cult was something that I was not interested in being a part of, so I stopped going to their meetings. A few months later I started again. Then I stopped. And then I started. Stopped. Started. My feelings were ambiguous about this group; they were labeled as a cult, but these people sure fed me with the riches of Christ. I would leave a meeting not wanting to go back, but a week later I couldn’t wait to see them again.

You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win
And so it goes
Until the day you die
This thing they call love
It’s gonna make you cry
I’ve had the blues, the reds and the pinks
All I can say is
Love stinks
---J. Geils Band, “Love Stinks”

Several years passed. In that time I was so inundated with the claims of competing factions of Christianity that I finally said “enough!” and for the next several years after that I didn’t attend meetings anywhere. Finally in the beginning of 1997, after having some very negative experiences with an ex-girlfriend, I decided that I needed to go to church- somewhere. I didn’t care where. I settled on a church in Brunswick, OH called Metro Church South, an offshoot of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, where the much maligned “Toronto Blessing” originated. Metro brought some much needed refreshing to my soul. I started to read up on this “Toronto Blessing.” What, pray tell, do you think I found? That’s right- the Toronto Blessing was a cult. Ah, crap.

And this is where I began to come to my own understanding of what a cult was. My definition of what a cult is and isn’t leaves a lot of room for leeway. I have only one doctrine that I consider so essential, that the absence of it means that your group is one I need to avoid. Here it is.

“Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:22-23)

So there you go. Jesus is God. The Trinity is a fact. If you believe that Jesus is the Christ- come, let us reason together. If you believe that Jesus was just a created being, no soup for you. Next!

With this new understanding came a new appreciation of the writings of Witness Lee. Let me make this very plain. I do not believe that Witness Lee is a leader of a cult. He can’t lead a cult; he’s been dead for 9 years. Ron Kangas does not lead a cult; Minoru Chen does not lead a cult; Living Stream Ministry is not the publishing house for a cult. ‘Nuf said.

I’ve heard the accusations, OK? “Those people just follow a man.” Yeah, I’ll give you that one. But there aren’t that many people who don’t. Jack Hyles had quite a following before his death. Bob Gray in Texas has one now. There are people who appreciate the teachings of Mike Bickle and listen to them over other ministers. Following a man isn’t the defining standard for me. There are churches big and small who serve as mini cults of personality (to coin a phrase). The preacher’s preferences become their preferences. So what?

“They use love-bombing which is a recognized cult technique.” And I suppose the alternative is to not love at all, or at least keep people at arm’s length? That’s the problem in a lot of churches today. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” is what John 13:35 tells us. If you think someone is taking it too far then grow a set of stones and put a stop to it, but don’t criticize people for trying to be caring individuals.

I have a very good friend named Bob Madison. Bob and his family have fellowshipped with the Church in Elyria for many years. If I had the opportunity to spend two hours with one person, talking or eating breakfast or whatever, I would likely choose Bob. His love for Christ is apparent; his love for people is unparalleled. And he reads the writings of Witness Lee. Oooohhhh.

Certainly the churches in the Lord’s Recovery have faults. Who doesn’t? They are virulently anti-denominational when they are, in fact, a denomination. As rich as the writings of Witness Lee are, there are other writers worthy of my time as well. But at some point the energy needed to think negatively about this, that and the other Christian just wasn’t worth it for me. It is much easier to just ignore someone or some group I have a disagreement with than to publish a pamphlet or start a website to get people to see things my way. I’m going to be 40 this year. I don’t have that much time left to play the angry young man :) .

That’s my viewpoint and I’m sticking to it. So sue me.

3 Comments:

Blogger Joel said...

Right on, Right on!!!!!!!!!! Let's just enjoy the Lord and leave it at that. Christ is the foundation, not Witness Lee, Watchman Nee or the Apostle Paul. The source is the Lord Jesus Christ. If I am being misled then I trust the spirit the Lord has given me to hear Him tell me about it. Thank you and the Lord be with your spirit Brother. Joel Cheney

12:50 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I did my undergrad in University Circle in 93-97 and "the Church" met down the street. I went to a couple meetings to figure out what was going on, ultimately choosing not to continue.

"I settled on a church in Brunswick, OH called Metro Church South, an offshoot of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, where the much maligned “Toronto Blessing” originated. Metro brought some much needed refreshing to my soul."

Surprised to see this! Metro rehabbed me from '01 until sometime in '04 when God moved me back to the east coast. Great connection... consider me a subscriber!

12:47 PM  
Blogger Cynthia Tse said...

2 Corinthians 11:1-4

Let Christ continues to be the focus of our faith.

1:17 PM  

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