Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Answering Anton Hein's Charges
...about my Christianity Today magazine news article on the Local Church and the lawsuit involving Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon.
An article by Mark A. Kellner (bio online at http://www.kellner.us/bio.html)
>>Note: An "interactive" version of this article, featuring live links, can be found at http://www.tinyurl.com/jonn <<
In re-reading Mr. Hein's last public AR-Forum posting on the subject, I came across what is apparently one of his main charges concerning the CT article, to wit:
“...in my opinion your current attempt to rush to the aid of yet another religious cult is ill-advised in that it appears you fail to acknowledge and/or understand:
a) the Local Church's lengthy record of legal threats,
b) and its status as - theologically - a cult of Christianity, and
c) its record of cultic behavior”
Source: Anton Hein's posting on AR-Talk, 10 August 2003; sadly, such posts are not available via Web access at this time, so far as I can determine.
It may be worth reading the following excerpts from the article, "Local Church Fights for Evangelical ID Card: Witness Lee group sues for $136 million over Harvest House cults article," as it appears in the February issue of Christianity Today. (Nota Bene: Mr. Hein cites this as the "Jan. 14, 2003 issue" when in fact that was merely the date on which the article was posted to CT's Web site. The correct reference is the February 2003 issue.)
(1) Mr. Hein first alleges that I “fail to acknowledge and/or understand" what he terms "the Local Church's lengthy record of legal threats.”
FACT: My article is abundantly clear about this track record:
Going to court
Indeed, the current libel suit is not a first for the group. The Local Church previously sued Thomas Nelson Publishers over The Mind Benders (1977), which former Campus Crusade for Christ worker Jack Sparks wrote. It also sued the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) over the German edition of Neil Duddy's The God-Men . Both volumes, now out of print, extensively criticized Local Church teachings and practices.
Thomas Nelson settled out of court with the Local Church and published a retraction in 1983. SCP fared worse. Duddy left the United States reportedly because of legal pressures related to the suit. SCP declared bankruptcy. Subsequently, a judge ruled that the book was libelous and awarded $11.9 million to the Local Church. SCP was able to pay only $34,000. In the current suit, Living Stream and the Local Church are seeking $20 million each. In addition, 96 local fellowships are seeking $1 million each. The group said that it is suing because extensive attempts at mediation with the authors and publisher have failed.
Harvest House Publishers, based in Eugene, Oregon, had unsuccessfully sued the Local Church in 2001. The publisher asked an Oregon court to declare that the Ankerberg/Weldon book "has not defamed" the group. On March 15, 2002, a Lane County, Oregon, circuit court judge ruled the court had no jurisdiction over the Local Church. The judge dismissed the suit "with prejudice," meaning it could not be re-filed. Harvest House declined comment for this article.
===end excerpt ===
(2) Mr. Hein then claims that I “fail to acknowledge and/or understand" the Local Church's "...status as -- theologically -- a cult of Christianity.”
FACT: The article does not support Mr. Hein's claim:
Subtle in error?
Ankerberg and Weldon do not critique the anti-denominational teaching of Lee as such. In the encyclopedia's doctrinal appendix (cited in the lawsuit), the authors say, "All cults and religions deny the unique incarnation of [Christ] the Second Person of the Godhead." The article on the Local Church cited the movement's "mystical approach" and "claims of new revelation" as examples of its "occult potential."
The article says the Local Church wrongly believes that elect Christians "become God by their union and communion with him." Ankerberg, who for 20 years has broadcast weekly TV discussions of Mormonism, the Masonic Lodge, Silva Mind Control, and other belief systems, declined an interview for this article.
In interviews with CT , Living Stream President Benson Phillips and Local Church Elder Daniel E. Towle said Local Church leaders do not teach that believers can "become God as God is God." Rather, Towle said, a believer becomes a God-man only "in the sense of regeneration and sanctification."
Witness Lee, in a 1994 video message quoted in a recent Local Church brochure, said, "God became man that man may become God." The group calls this "the greatest truth in the whole Bible." Phillips said Lee's statement was based on a quotation from the early church father Athanasius: "He [God] became man that we might become God." Believers become, according to Witness Lee, "God in his life and in his nature, but not in his godhead."
Phillips told CT , "We believe God is triune, distinct in persons, but not separate. In his move through time, the Son was sent to Earth. We believe the three are eternally co-existing and co-inhere."
But E. Calvin Beisner, a theology and ethics professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, remains skeptical of the Local Church. He first studied the group in the 1970s. "They have become more subtle in their error, and therefore all the more likely to get people thinking that they are orthodox, when in fact they are not.
"They claim to be Christian, but certain elements of their teaching are contradictory to, and not just tangential to, defining truths of the Christian faith."
In a March 2002 letter, Beisner—who is cited about a dozen times in the Harvest House encyclopedia—said that in his opinion the Local Church:
-- "Insists that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Spirit."
-- "Goes far beyond the Eastern Orthodox concept" in its deification teachings.
-- Has a tendency to sue its critics, "entirely out of keeping" with the apostle Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians.
===end excerpt ===
(3) Mr. Hein claims that, in respect to the Local Church, my article ignored “its record of cultic behavior.”
FACT: I believe the article, as written does not ignore the issue:
The Local Church insists it is evangelical, not a cult. Living Stream Ministry (LSM), the group's nonprofit publishing corporation, has joined the main trade group for evangelical publishers and hired a top literary agent for Christian writers. Living Stream points to its statement of faith as proof of its orthodox beliefs.
Chinese Christian patriarch Watchman Nee founded the Local Church movement in the 1920s in China, and it has spread to Europe and North America. For many years after Nee's 1972 death in a communist prison, his disciple Witness Lee led the group. Lee, who resettled in Anaheim, California, died at age 91 in 1997. The group uses its own English translation of the Bible, the Recovery Version, and claims 25,000 adherents in the United States and 250,000 worldwide.
Lee passionately opposed the sectarian character of Protestant denominations. He argued that such groups "denied the Lord's name by denominating" themselves, an action he branded as "spiritual fornication." LSM President Benson Phillips told CT that Lee believed denominations create confusion among nonbelievers. "We don't view these organizations as the church themselves. Our speaking in this way is not directed to the people [within denominations]."
Evangelical verdict uncertain
Few evangelicals publicly support the Local Church or Living Stream. But the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which counts Harvest House as a founding member, has accepted Living Stream, based in Anaheim, California, as a member.
ECPA President Doug Ross said the group carefully examined Living Stream's statement of faith and interviewed its executives before granting admission. Living Stream also belongs to CBA, the national association of Christian retailers. Living Stream and several Local Church congregations have joined the Evangelical Christian Credit Union in Brea, California.
Local Church leaders have hired evangelical attorney Sealy Yates of Orange, California, as a literary consultant. The Yates law firm and literary agency has also represented Dallas Seminary Chancellor Chuck Swindoll, pastor and motivational speaker John Maxwell, and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
While Knox's Beisner does not count the group as evangelical, James Bjornstad, vice president of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, is less critical. ...
Anyone who reads the article in full will see a balanced presentation of the issues. Mr. Hein may not realize that a news article — which this was — is intended to be a news report and not a theological critique. However, I believe my report — which was NOT, by the way, instigated in any form by the Local Church or anyone connected with the group — is fair and accurate. Mr. Hein's claims as stated above simply are not true as to the claim that I fail to “acknowledge” these matters. As to Mr. Hein's assertion that I do not understand them, I would ask how he proposes to know what is in my mind? I believe the article shows a more than adequate understanding of the issues as far as a general news report is concerned.
Of course, the greater issues remain:
(1) Why did Harvest House file a pre-emptory lawsuit against the Local Church, and how does this square with the scriptural admonitions against legal action (in I Corinthians) which Mr. Hein likes to cite against the Local Church? Does one group of Christians* get a pass on this, but not another?
(2) Why did Harvest House refuse to meet with people who sought a dialogue and understanding of an issue about which people reasonably disagree?
(3) Do Christians* have a right to defend themselves if other Christians refuse the Bible standard (Matt. 18:15-17) by which disputes should be settled?
The answers to these questions would, I believe, make for interesting reading. Yet, despite repeated attempts, neither Harvest House nor John Ankerberg would talk to me for the CT article.
One more point, in case you're wondering: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Local Church. I have never been in their employ, nor have I been a contractor for them or any subsidiary. The views expressed on this page are solely my own and do not represent any church, denomination, publication or entity.
* Mr. Hein has written that he considers the Local Church a "cult of Christianity" (see, for example, this page on his Web site) and that is his privilege. However, given that the Local Church considers themselves within the realm of evangelical Christianity, as do, apparently, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, the Evangelical Credit Union and the (chiefly evangelical) Christian Booksellers Association, then it would appear that there are those who would understand the lawsuit as a dispute between two groups of Christians. Moreover, if Mr. Hein does not consider the Local Church to be "Christian," in the evangelical sense, then why is he imposing a "Christian" standard on them?
Questions? Comments? Send me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org