Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Joy of Sects

In my entry “A Cult is a Cult, of course, of course” I talked in a general way about why I don’t believe that Living Stream Ministry is the headquarters of a cult, and that the differences in theology Witness Lee has with most other Christian bodies are no different than the rest of Christendom; churches disagree on doctrine every day of the week and they aren’t labeled as being “aberrant” or “cultic”. I enjoy a variety of writings from across the Christian spectrum. Witness Lee is one of those authors.

Once again I want to pick up the banner for Witness Lee and defend him. Phil Johnson in a blog entry entitled “Publisher prevails in important lawsuit” covers a decision handed down in the case of The Local Church/Living Stream Ministry et al vs Harvest House, John Ankerberg and John Weldon. This case involved LSM’s attempts to avoid being defined as a cult within the pages of a popular reference work, authored by Ankerberg and Weldon, entitled Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions.

The following paragraph is taken from a letter representatives of LSM wrote to the president of Harvest House:

According to Dr. Ankerberg and Dr. Weldon, cults engage in a variety of very bad, unwholesome and morally bankrupt practices. For example, the book alleges that cults subject their members to “physical” and “psychological” “harm”, engage in the “perversion of sexuality,” “restrict” the “independent thought” of their members, and demand “unquestioning obedience” to group “leaders.” The authors further allege that cults engage in “occult practices,” engineer “cover ups of the group’s history” or that of its “leaders,” subject members to “intimidation,” perpetrate “deception and fraud,” engage in fraudulent “fund raising,” and issue deceptive statements concerning “financial costs.” The authors go so far as to suggest that these cults practice “witchcraft” and literally cause “cancer” in their members. (4th paragraph, link here.)

In the minds of those at LSM, to define a cult with such loaded terms in the introduction of a book, and then to include LSM within the pages of said book, means that readers will automatically assume that LSM and those who appreciate the writings of Witness Lee are guilty of such behavior. Even if the authors didn’t intend to paint LSM with their broad brush, if they didn’t specifically say that LSM wasn’t guilty of such behavior then readers would automatically assume the worst. The word “cult” is an inflammatory term already. When people hear it they automatically think “Jim Jones”, and they don’t try to make distinctions. I don't find fault with Living Stream Ministry in the slightest for attempting to defend their reputation.

Before I go on, I must say that this isn’t the first time LSM has taken critics to court. I won’t pretend to be comfortable with that approach. I think they have taken too many dipperfuls at the lawsuit well. A difference in theology isn’t grounds for a lawsuit, and several critics of Witness Lee are just objecting to him on theological grounds. They aren’t intending to label him as cultic. LSM needs to realize that not everyone is going to take well to their brand of Christianity, which labels the rest of Christendom as “degraded” and “dead”. Ron, Minoru, Ed- just relax. The riches of Brother Lee’s books will speak for themselves. Just ignore those who disagree with you.

Phil Johnson’s opinion of LSM is made apparent as he refers to the local churches aligned with LSM as “an aberrant group closely associated with the teaching of Witness Lee”, and referring to them later on as a sect. Some of the comments to his post weren’t as kind as he. “I can think of no more deplorable or immoral act than corrupting the very truth and Word of God: of that they are surely guilty.” “The local mainstream Protestant groups (in Taiwan), like the Baptists and Presbyterians, are doing absolutely nothing to counter the heretical teachings of this cult.” “I find sects awfully sad.”

Sects are sad. Hmm. I happen to enjoy sects; not as often as I would like, maybe once every couple of weeks. Having kids will do that to you. Oh… you mean the plural of “sect”. My bad. Let’s see what some online resources have to say about the meaning of the word “sect”:

1. A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.
2. A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.
3. A faction united by common interests or beliefs.
Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth EditionCopyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

sect n
1: a subdivision of a larger religious group (syn: religious sect, religious order)
2: a dissenting clique (syn: faction)
Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

Pronunciation: 'sekt
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English secte, from Middle French & Late Latin & Latin; Middle French, group, sect, from Late Latin secta organized ecclesiastical body, from Latin, course of action, way of life, probably from sectari to pursue, frequentative of sequi to follow
1 a : a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially : one regarded as extreme or heretical b : a religious denomination
2 archaic : SEX 1 "so is all her sect -- Shakespeare"
3 a : a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Of the three sources, the American Heritage Dictionary gives neutral definitions. A sect is just a religious body, sometimes a split-off from a larger denomination, but with no negative connotations. WordNet describes a cult as a “dissenting clique”, but that isn’t necessarily a negative definition, just a little more descriptive one. Merriam-Webster gives a definition that can be regarded as rather subjective. Who decides what group is schismatic, extreme or heretical? Ask the evangelicals, and they’ll tell you that fundamental Baptists are extreme and Pentecostals are heretical. According to fundamental Baptists, evangelical Christians are schismatic and Roman Catholics are r-e-a-l-l-l-y heretical. Ask some Roman Catholics, and they’ll tell you that the whole lot of ya are dissenting sects. And in fact, most churches are sects, inasmuch as the majority of them have split off from an established body at some point in their history. Doesn’t mean they’re aberrant; doesn’t mean they’re extreme or dangerous. It just means that theological differences have been argued 100 years before us, and they will be argued 100 years after us. Theological differences will never end.

I will make a confession to you. Even though I’ve critiqued Phil Johnson’s post in this article, I rather enjoy his writing. He obviously knows his stuff and has a very readable style. He works closely with John MacArthur, a man whom I greatly admire. Too bad Phil is part of an aberrant, heretical sect :) After all, if I was a Lutheran, I would certainly think so. He doesn’t agree with what I would consider to be historic theology, so he’s aberrant. If I was a fightin’, feudin’ fundamentalist, I might put Phil under the “really bad theology” section of my own website. (Check Phil’s list of bookmarks to understand the reference.)

I covered this ground several days ago. There is no way to win, so maybe instead of getting worked up and using hot-button words in describing some of the groups with which we disagree we should just grab a drink and relax. Maybe enjoy some sects :)


Blogger Good Christian Boy said...

I spent twelve long years in the LSM cult, and I would like to say politely that you shouldn't talk about things you know nothing about.

The problem with the Local Church group -- properly called "Liites" (the followers of Chang-Shou Li) -- is not that they have novel doctrines, but far worse. The problem is twofold.

(1) Their central doctrine is a version of the dharma wheel of Buddhism, which they call "mingling." To them, God wants to terminate man's soul and replace it with himself. The believer, thus annihilated of the self, the "I," is then reabsorbed into God, ie. nirvana. None of this is remotely Christian. Indeed, since this involves the destruction of the soul, rather than its salvation in the Christian sense, this is anti-Christian.

(2) So keeping in line with the central anti-soul doctrine, Liite doctrine and ritual center around man being wholly evil. That is, your nature and everything about you is evil and must be suppressed. Your needs and opinions are "fallen" and must be annihilated. As one can imagine, this can produce psychological duress together with the high-stress activity of five long meetings a week and two ten-day training camps a year.

The Local Church is aware of the resultant mental breakdowns; they normally lead to intervention by the victim's family from outside the organization and departure from the group. The Local Church then describes the breakdowns in reverse: as what happens when a member leaves. This is callous to say the least, but the intent seems to be to scare members away from leaving.

I fear that you may have already made up your mind from innocence. But I hate to see someone to take a position on a group that causes people so much mental harm. People DO matter.

3:30 AM  

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