The Local Church Cult and the Supreme Court of Texas:
A Big Victory for the Counter-Cult Movement
by Norman L. Geisler
The Local Church and its publishing service, Living Stream Ministries, sued John Ankerberg and Harvest House Publishers for listing them as a cult in their Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions. Strangely, some noted counter-cult ministries like Hank Hannegraaff’s CRI, a paid free-lance editor of CRI, Gretchen Passintino-Coburn, and Fuller Seminary sided with The Local Church! I wrote an Amicus brief in defense of John Ankerberg and Harvest House (which is available on www.normgeisler.com). Recently, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of our contention that it would be a violation of our First Amendment rights to forbid calling a group a cult. The Local Church has appealed the decision.
The Victory Won
What is most interesting is that even the Local Church, in its subsequent appeal to the Court, agrees with one of the main contentions of the counter-cult movement, namely, that we do have the right to call them a cult. Their recent appeal to the Texas Supreme Court states clearly: “It is nothing more than an expression of religious opinion that the Local Church is a ‘cult’ in a theological sense. It is a type of religious opinion that is undisputedly protected by the Establishment Clause…” (p. 9, emphasis added). Of course, they go on to shift the argument to another sphere. They contend that while it is constitutional to use the term cult in a theological sense, it is wrong to call the Local Church a cult in a secular sense. They claim this kind of speech is libelous and is not protected by the First Amendment. But Ankerberg and Harvest House deny that they have libeled them in this secular sense of the term cult. And this is where the rest of the battle will be fought in the High Courts.
Nonetheless, the Local Church has made a very significant admission by an acknowledgment in which the counter-cult movement can take courage. For one of the cults most prone to lawsuits of this nature has finally removed all fear of successful lawsuits against us for pointing out the unorthodox doctrinal nature of deviant religious systems.
This is a great victory because this litigious cult has now acknowledged that we have a right to call them a cult in a theological sense. Indeed, were this not true, we would have no freedom of speech to define our own belief. As I said in my Amicus Brief, “First, it is a danger to our religious liberty for the Courts to engage in determining what is or is not orthodox theology. Second, it violates one’s freedom of speech not to allow a group to define the limits of their own orthodox beliefs by distinguishing them from beliefs and groups that do not in their opinion meet the standards for orthodoxy” (emphasis added).
Lessons to be Learned
While we are praising God for the victory to call a heresy a heresy, there are lessons to be learned. First, since the legal action is now focused on using the term “cult” in a non-theological sense, we must be very careful in the use of the term “cult” in a secular sense. When we do use it in this sense, we must take care to specify the sense in which we call a group a cult, being very careful to support the claim by evidence. Second, in the lack of good evidence, we should be content to say that such and such has been alleged against the group in question. Third, it would be wise to state clearly, as Ankerberg did, that all the social, psychological, and/or moral characteristics of cults in general are not applicable to each cult in particular. This whole case of the Local Church against Ankerberg now rests on a kind of guilt-by-association argument the Local Church is using. However, we are wise not to give any occasion for these false charges to be made by making a clear disassociation of particular cults from the general characteristics that we cannot prove actually apply to it.
Fourth, this has been a very expensive case for Harvest House, and they are to be commended for having insurance to protect against this kind of suit. Like Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) that was forced into bankruptcy by a previous Local Church lawsuit, most counter-cult groups do not have the financial wherewithal to defend themselves in court. Thus, we must either get such insurance, publish through a publisher who has it, or beware of what we say about whom.
Finally, we must be very careful to be accurate in what we write about these groups, especially those prone to sue. Several suggestions come to mind. First, document what you say. Second, use primary sources. Third, quote in context. Finally, be careful about non-theological charges. They are more likely to be the object of a libel suite and may not be protected by the religious right to free speech. We have yet to see what the court will say about this argument and where they will draw the line.
A Major Mistake
In their Appeal to the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider their case, the Local Church ironically included an appendix containing Chapter Three from a book by Witness Lee titled The God-Ordained Way to Practice the New Testament Economy. In this chapter he engages in particularly inappropriate and utterly self-incriminating language for a group that resents being called a cult. It is so self-condemning that one can only wonder why they included it. He anathematizes all of organized Christianity with language that is far more slanderous than almost anything orthodox Christian writers have ever said about the most heinous cults. In this appendix to their brief Witness Lee refers to the object of his scorn as “all of Christianity,” “all Christians,” “today’s Christendom” (25, 26), “all Christianity, and “today’s Catholic Church” (26).”the Catholic Church and all the denominations” (29). His attack is done with a devastating vehemence and by sweeping indictments against organized Christianity like: It is “altogether negative,” “deformed and degraded,” and absolutely far off from God’s eternal plan.” (25). It has “false teachers,” who are “in their apostasy” (26). The Roman Church is infested with “Satan’s evil spirits” and “full of all kinds of evils. Evil persons, evil practices, and evil things are lodging there” (26). It is an “adulterous woman who added leaven (signifying evil, heretical, and pagan things).” It is “the Mother of the Prostitutes” and an “apostate church” (27). Again, it is “full of idolatry,” “against God’s economy,” and “saturated with demonic and satanic things” (28-29). If ever there were grounds for religious libel, this would be it. Yet they object when someone else calls them a cult. This is a classic example of the kettle calling the pot black!
In view of Hannegraaff’s argument (rejected by the Court) that calling the Local Church a cult will bring persecution on other Christian group, one wonders what he would say about these extravagant charges against all organized Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. By this same argument, has not the Local Church hereby made all other Christian groups in China vulnerable to the Chinese government for the same reasons Hannegraaff wishes to protect the Local Church against the charge of being a cult for fear the communist government will take this occasion to persecute them? Likewise, it is surprising that the otherwise thoughtful Gretchen Passintino-Coburn is supporting such a poor argument that even her brother, Cal Beisner, has rebutted it. And has not the inerrancy denying Fuller Seminary – scarcely a bastion of orthodoxy – prostituted itself by declaring that “the teachings and practices of the local churches and its members represent the genuine historical, biblical Christian faith in every essential aspect” (in a letter on behalf of the Local Church of January 5, 2006). By any count the Trinity is an essential aspect of the Christian Faith, and it was well documented for the Court that the Local Church has repeatedly denied the historic, biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
In conclusion, let’s remember the names the Local Church calls the rest of Christendom–names like “deformed and degraded,” “false teachers” “in their apostasy” who are infested with “Satan’s evil spirits” and “full of all kinds of evils. Evil persons, evil practices,” having “heretical, and pagan things,” “the Mother of the Prostitutes,” “full of idolatry,” and “saturated with demonic and satanic things”! If there were ever a case for libel it is not against John Ankerberg and Harvest House for exercising their Constitutional rights to call the Local Church a “cult.” Rather, it is a libel suit by all of organized Christianity against the Local Church for the names by which they have been called!