Is Oneness Doctrine A Cult? What’s New In The New Religions?
By: Robert M. Bowman Jr.
AN UPDATE ON TRENDS IN HERETICAL AND CULTIC RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS.
Most established religions aren’t growing any faster than the rate of population increase. The world’s population has tripled since 1900, and with it the number of Hindus, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. Even Islam has increased only fourfold.
In contrast, the new religions (those originating in the past 200 years) have increased in membership this century by a factor of 18! More than 108 million people worldwide now belong to such groups.
Most of this growth has taken place since the 1960s, when hundreds of new sects embraced everything from pagan occultism and witchcraft to distorted reinterpretations of Christianity. Along with this tremendous growth, the kinds of religions forming and the way in which they relate to the world is constantly changing.
Reacting to Opposition
One of the most significant trends in the past two decades is the growth of the “counter cult” movement. Hundreds of organizations have been formed to oppose the teachings and practice of the various new religions. although many of these organizations are founded on evangelical Christian beliefs, a good number are not.
Some are non-religious groups concerned primarily with sects that they believe are involved in illegal activities or that pose an immediate threat to their members’ physical or mental well-being. The non-evangelical counter cult movement developed largely after the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, in which 912 followers of Jim Jones committed suicide or were murdered.
The counter cult movement, understandably, has met with resistance. Some sects that profess to be Christian have responded with efforts to affirm the genuineness of their profession.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have forbidden members to read any literature that criticizes “God’s organization,” and they have made talking with ex-members an offense punishable by “dis-fellowshiping.” In the, past several years, The Watchtower has published a stream of articles discouraging the Witnesses from questioning anything they are taught and stressing the radical differences between the Watchtower Society’s teachings and those of “Christendom.”
Other groups have reacted in an almost opposite manner. The Mormons have sought to win recognition from the Christian community as a legitimate church — minimizing the differences between their doctrines and those of historic Christianity while not abandoning distinctive Mormon teachings.
The Mormon church has also given its members freedom to dissent from its teachings or reinterpret them. A significant movement withinMormonism, represented in periodicals such as Dialogue and Sunstone, can only be described as liberal. These Mormons are willing to admit that Joseph Smith did dabble in the occult, that he did copy large portions of the King James Version into the Book of Mormon, and that Brigham Young did teach that Adam was God — yet without abandoning their confession that the Mormon church is the one true church and Joseph Smith is God’s prophet.
Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormon church is extremely reluctant to excommunicate any of its members. And although they discourage critical objectivity when it comes to Mormon history, Mormons are willing to discuss their teachings with dissenters and critics. Mormon missionaries, however, are instructed not to “waste” time talking with people who are familiar with their history and doctrine and who would seek to lead them away from Mormonism to biblical Christianity.
In an effort to appear Christian, many groups are parroting evangelical terminology. Some Witnesses are claiming to have “accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.” Sects such as The Way International and the United Pentecostal Church (both of which deny the Trinity) hide behind their claim to be “born-again Christians,” a claim that confuses many evangelicals who are unfamiliar with their doctrines.
Heretical groups are also becoming more sophisticated in responding to criticisms of their teachings. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have published a “reference edition” of their New World Translation that appears to be a scholarly study Bible. Many Witnesses are studying enough Greek and Hebrew to use biblical language tools and to devise clever (though erroneous) rebuttals to the standard criticisms of their misinterpretations of the Bible. The Mormons have produced a number of scholarly articles and books defending Mormonism.
Conflicts in Court
Another trend is the large number of court cases involving new religions. In many of these cases, people who gave funds to a religious organization are suing to recover their money.
The Church of Scientology has been involved in a number of multimillion-dollar lawsuits from ex-members who claimed the sect defrauded them or even caused them mental harm. The Church Universal and Triumphant (which reinterprets Christianity to teach reincarnation and occultism) was ordered to pay ex-member Gregory Mull more than $1.5 million in a lawsuit charging fraud, extortion, and involuntary servitude. Mull died in July 1986 of multiple sclerosis before he could collect the award.
Ex-member Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas successfully sued The Bible Speaks, headquartered in Lenox, Mass., for $6.6 million, which she claimed she was manipulated into donating. The ultra-fundamentalist group declared bankruptcy, put headquarters property up for sale, and reincorporated as The Greater Grace World Outreach, based in Baltimore. Its founder, Carl Stevens resigned as an officer of the corporation, although he remains the leader of the international sect.
Despite a recent federal appeals court ruling against it, the Church of Scientology says it will continue its tax battle with the Internal Revenue Service. The court upheld a decision that revokes the group’s tax-exempt status and ordered payment of $1.43 million in back taxes and penalties.
Some court cases involving new religions have involved criminal violations. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, was forced to spend 11 months in jail in 1984 and 1985 for tax evasion. Ironically, a number of evangelical leaders criticized the ruling and defended Moon out of concern that Christian leaders might be targeted next.
Members of Faith Assembly, a faith-healing sect led by the late Hobart Freeman, were convicted of reckless homicide for allowing their infant son to die of pneumonia in 1984.
Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada, head of the Hare Krishna movement’s most successful temple (New Vrindaban in West Virginia), has been investigated for possible criminal activities. Several lesser Krishnas
have been charged with crimes ranging from murder to drug trafficking.
Growth in Heretical Sects
Many of the older pseudo-Christian sects have grown at a startling rate. The Mormon church claims more than six million members worldwide, with four million in the United States.
Since the 1978 “revelation” allowing blacks to hold the Mormon priesthood, many thousands of blacks have converted to Mormonism. The growth rate is so accelerated in Africa that Mormon leaders can’t instruct and baptize their converts fast enough; since 1978 the number of black African Mormons has risen from practically zero to about 300,000. There are also some 20,000 black Mormons in the Caribbean. Yet in the United States there are little more than 1,000 black Mormons, probably because the group’s history of racism is better known.
Mormonism’s rapid growth can be attributed in part to the missionary force of 30,000 young Mormons engaged in full-time, two-year missionary stints.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses now number more than three million “publishers” (baptized members active in distributing their literature) worldwide, many of them full time. The United States has about 750,000 publishers, with more than double that number involved at a lesser level.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ growth rate, though significant, is reduced somewhat by the number of persons who leave or are disfellowshiped every year. For every five persons baptized during the past 10 years, at least one has left or been kicked out. The Watchtower reports almost 37,000 were disfellowshiped in 1986, and many more left of their own accord.
What growth the group is experiencing is attributable to plain hard work: In 1986, Jehovah/s Witnesses spent an average of 3,015 hours (3,518 in the United States) proselytizing for each convert baptized.
Probably the third-larges pseudo-Christian sect in the world is the United Pentecostal Church, the largest group that teaches the “Oneness” heresy. Better known as the “Jesus Only” doctrine, it claims that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The United Pentecostal Church now has about 500,000 members in the United States and 1.2 million worldwide.
Including members of other sects such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and some of the “Apostolic Faith” churches, Oneness adherents number about four million worldwide.
(Robert M. Bowman Jr. is associate editor of the Christian Research Journal, published by Christian Research Institute, Box 500, San Juan Capistrano, Calif. 92693. Much of the information in this article was contributed by other members of the Research Department of CRI.)
(The above article appeared in the November issue of Moody Monthly.)
THE RETURN OF THE HERESY HUNTERS
By: Jamie Buckingham
Just When I had begun to believe it was safe to think out loud again, the heresy hunters returned.
I had hoped, once the controversial The Seduction of Christianity had slunk back into the murky depths where all back-listed books go to die, that the flurry of heresy-hunting would subside.
Not so! It’s not safe to go back into the water, The sharks have once again raised their ugly fins. Jaws has returned — and has brought his vicious brothers with him.
In November, Moody Monthly, the flagship magazine of fundamentalist Christians, ran an article subtitled: “An Update on Trends in Heretical and Cultic Religious Movements.” The article listed all the old standby bad boys — Mormons, Moonies, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses. This time, though, they added a new heretic: the United Pentecostal Church.
The United Pentecostal Church? “In an effort to appear Christian,” Moody Monthly says, “sects such as…the United Pentecostal Church (…which deny the Trinity) hide behind their claim to be ‘born again Christians.'”
Branding the UPC as “heretics,” the magazine says, “Probably the third largest pseudo-Christian sect in the world is the United Pentecostal Church, the largest group that teaches the ‘oneness’ heresy. Better known as the ‘Jesus only’ doctrine, it claims that Jesus is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
My UPC friends, who disdain the term “Jesus only,” tell me they really do believe in the Trinity. The just don’t believe like the folks in Chicago.
Since I don’t understand the Trinity myself, I asked five different theologians to explain it to me. Each gave me a different explanation.That means we’re all heretics. At least everyone but me.
The first heresy hunters were members of the ancient tribe of Manasseh called Gileadites. There had been a long-standing feud between them and the Ephriamites in northern Israel. Determined to protect themselves from infiltrators, the Gileadites set up a check point at the fords of the Jordan. They challenged anyone trying to cross the river to say the password: “shibboleth.” Try as they could, the Ephriamites simply couldn’t pronounce the word. It always came out “sibboleth.” When that happened, the renegade Gileadites would cut off their heads.
Over the centuries the church has maintained its shibboleths. Ironically, the UPC is one of the most notorious when it comes to double-checking doctrinal credentials.
Last month a visitor in our church accosted me after a morning service, demanding to know if I baptized “only in the name of Jesus, according to Acts 19:5.”
I told him the last person I baptized had been in the ocean and I had done it in the name of Jesus only. He hugged me, called me “brother”, and left. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had intended to say “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as found in Matthew 28:19, but had been knocked over by a huge way just as I lowered the man into the water. The best I could do was scream “Jesus!”
I guess that makes me “Jesus only.”
Today’s heresy hunters still use shibboleths. Fundamentalists, spotting an approaching political candidate, shout, “Say, ‘prayer in public schools.'” If you stammer even the slightest, off comes yourhead. At least one presidential candidate, George Bush, has hired a Pentecostal preacher to coach him on how to pronounce evangelical words so he won’t slip up and say “sibboleth” as he courts the pastors of large churches.
Lately Southern Baptists have been chopping heads. Home missionaries have been told if they speak in tongues they may lose their jobs. At least one seminary president has resigned because he couldn’t pronounce “inerrancy.” Every time he was challenged it came out “inspiration.” When I was growing up all you had to believe about the Bible, in order to be a good Baptist, was that it was inspired. Recently, however, the Gileadites got themselves elected to the Sanhedrin. Now heresy-hunting is back in vogue.
Last fall a “white paper” was circulated by an Assemblies of God evangelist. It called Bishop Earl Paulk of Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Atlanta a heretic. The Bishop, who is without a doubt today’s most comprehensive writer and speaker on a doctrine called “kingdom now,” is being chased by the Gileadites because he can’t pronounce “eschatology.” It’s ludicrous for the bishop to be called a heretic on the basis of false end times theology. I’ve read all his books on end times and challenge anyone to figure out exactly what he believes.
When I think of the bishop’s theology I recall columnist George Will’s story of a British member of Parliament, who, coming down off the podium after delivering a comprehensive speech, asked Prime Minister Balfour, “How did I do, Arthur?”
“Splendidly, Henry, splendidly.”
“Did you understand me, Arthur?”
“Not a word, Henry, not a word.”
It’s been a long time since the days of Huss, Wycliffe and Joan of Arc, and even though I don’t understand “kingdom now” theology, the bishop gives class to today’s sorry lot of accused heretics. If I were going to the stake I’d be honored to be tied up with him.
But if you ask me to say “shibboleth,” stand back. Every time I try, I spit.
(The above article appeared in the January issue of Charisma & Christian Life.)
Christian Information Network 1988