Archive | Cults

Part II: The Other Reason All Conversions are Not Equal

To “convert” someone, as most people use the word, means to get that person to change in some profound way, usually beginning with and centering on the person’s beliefs. Conversions, in this sense, are happening on a regular basis, some good and some not. This is the second part follow-up to my previous post on the subject of how not all conversions are equal. I argued that there are two main reasons for this. First, it makes all the difference what exactly is being embraced by the new “convert.” The actual substance of the message and worldview that will shape the convert’s thoughts and actions may be something true and good. But it may be a terrible deception that brings destruction to that person and others. If you want to read more about this, see the previous post.

The second reason not all conversions are equal has to do with the process by which a convert is won. If the first reason involves the message, the second involves the method. There’s more than one way to get someone to see things from your side.  Consider the tools you might employ to get people to profess what you want them to:  you could frighten, threaten or terrify them; you could brow-beat or manipulate them; you could lure them, bribe them, make them great promises; you could use subtle mind-games or clever tricks known to the best advertisers; if you have the power to do so, you might institute a program of heavy propaganda; you might make use of the potent pressure of peers or forces of pop culture; you could play to their emotions, toy with their feelings, confuse or bewilder them; if you want more assurance of success, maybe you could turn to the most direct empirical methods available – mind control, brain manipulation, the use of drugs.  The fact is that if the result is all that matters to you, and if any means will justify the end you seek, then any number of these methods might get the job done.

I’m sure you’re aware that everything listed in the previous paragraph has in fact been used to get people to think and do what other people wanted them to think and do. And the reason is simple.  It’s easier to use these kinds of tactics than it is to convince people by the legitimate method of making a good case. Advertisers and politicians know this all too well. Today’s world is image-driven, we’re told. Making a good impression is all that matters for a brand or politician. In fact, politicians running for office today are marketed as brands themselves. The goal is a good impression, creating a positive vibe that reverberates across social media and gets people to like the candidate, even if it’s only because his voice sounds authentic or he has caring eyes or some other shallow reason.

Our culture has shown that it can be swayed in record numbers and in a surprisingly short amount of time on major moral issues without thinking all that critically about them. Not long ago I heard an interview with a sociologist on NPR about the change in public opinion on gay marriage.  In an accent that was hard to nail down, he described a research project he had spear-headed among people under 30 that made it pretty clear to the researchers that the majority of those in that age category who have become supporters of that particular cause over the last five years have done so for personal and emotional reasons. People cited personal relationships with gay friends or family members, as well as the influence of likeable gay public figures or fictional gay characters depicted in movies and TV shows. Few of those surveyed, the researchers found, had come to their position because of arguments on behalf of gay marriage. The sociologists was quick to add that this is characteristic of the American public today, in fact. If you want to change people’s minds, the old fashioned approach of giving them a well thought-out list of reasons is probably not the best way to do it.  You’d have much more success with a simple repetition of your message and perspective in the lyrics of the music on their iPods, in the voices of the characters on their favorite shows, and in the social circles populated by their peers.

While it grieves and frustrates me to admit it, I can’t argue against that. More outlandish examples of groups of people being persuaded to believe something bear out this same principle. There’s all the more reason, in fact, to use means other than direct argument if the thing you’re trying to get people to believe seems intuitively problematic and would not fare well under scrutiny. Ask yourself: could the Nazi party have persuaded so many German citizens to go so far down the pathway of the “final solution” using plain arguments in a fair and open forum? Would North Koreans really fall all over themselves worshipping the “Great Leader” if they hadn’t been subjected to a lifetime of isolation, state mind control and fear? Would prosperity televangelists be hailed as ‘anointed’ teachers and have such large followings if they weren’t playing upon the greed and desperation of people looking for a quick miracle fix or a ticket to sudden wealth?

Note that the more striking cases have in common something of the religious element.  There is truth to the well-worn proverbial wisdom about what a powerful tool for manipulation religion can be. If you keep up with world affairs to any extent, you’ve heard about Christians being imprisoned in places like Iran due to accusations that they dared to persuade/convert someone. Pastors like Youcef Nadarkhani and Saeed Abedini (look them up) have been sent to hellish prisons where they receive torture and the repeated pressure to renounce their beliefs and convert to Islam in order to save their skin.  How’s that for a missionary strategy? I’ve often wondered just how truly devoted to Islam the people of [take your choice – Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia, etc.] would be if those societies allowed genuine religious freedom.  In other words, if the playing field were leveled in those places such that for a few generations people enjoyed the liberty to discuss, debate, disagree, and attempt to convert by legitimate means, what overall religious landscape would take shape as a result?

Regardless of what Islam (or any other worldview, religious or secular) does, Christians simply cannot allow themselves to revert to illegitimate tactics of persuasion.  All of these prohibited strategies– and I am referring again to anything other than the free profession of a person who has genuinely come to believe – are categorically outside the parameters of missions and evangelism for Christians. There is simply no ground for using any of the alternative methods of persuasion, regardless of how enticing they are due to being easier and getting better ‘results’ (which I put in quotes because I will argue that the ‘results’ are actually not better even if numbers are high).
Continue Reading →

Can Heretics Be Saved? Or “Aren’t We All Saved Heretics?”

I remember in seminary, sitting under Dr. John Hannah. He was out of this world (although some would say, “No, Michael, you mean ‘out to lunch’!”). Students would purchase a special “Hannah quote book” just to write down the “Hannahisms.” There were so many. The things he would say… The paradigms he would cause you to question… The language he would use! Let’s just say this: everything was unexpected. One day during class, we were talking about a certain heretic in church history. As a green student of theology, all I knew was that I hated heretics. Whoever was the “heretic” of the day, he was the anti-hero. The self-righteous theologian in me was glad that he was burning in hell. However, Hannah said something that did not fit in my puzzle. He suggested (even implied?) that this certain heretic would be in heaven. A heretic in heaven? He said that this heretic was “just doing the best he could.” He said he loved Jesus! What? Quickly, the students raised their hands. “Ummm…do you mean that this heretic was saved?”

Believe it or not, I have been called a heretic many times. The charges vary. One time it was simply because I did not believe someone else was a heretic! (In this case, I think it was Rick Warren). Don’t worry too much. I have about twelve more layers of skin than I used to have. Whether it has been my view of Bible, the Trinity, my stance on Roman Catholics and their eternal destiny, or my understanding of Christian freedom, I get in trouble with someone. To someone, I am always a heretic. Don’t get smug. So are you! Sometimes it will be because people think you are too liberal. Sometimes they will think you are too conservative. I have even had my orthodoxy questioned because of my sympathy for those who doubt their faith. There are always going to be people to the left of you and to the right of you. There are always going to be those people who think your beliefs and teachings are destructive. There are always going to be people who believe you are doing more harm than good. There are always going to be people who think you are a heretic.

But here is my question today: How does one determine if someone is a heretic? What is a heretic anyway? And, most importantly, can a heretic be saved?

The word “heretic” comes from the Greek hairetikos. It speaks of causing divisions. It is used in Titus 3:10 for those who divisively fracture the church. Throughout church history, it became a word used to describe those who divided the church due to doctrinal departures.

Here is a definition of heretic/heresy that I have used elsewhere: “A taught opinion, belief, or doctrine that is in variance to an established cardinal Christian belief. In Christianity, a heresy can have a historic value (more serious) or traditional value (less serious). In other words, a belief can be considered heretical to Baptists (e.g. paedeobaptism), but it is not heretical in the historic sense. To be a historic heresy, it would have to be in variance to that which has been believed by the majority of Christians of all places and all times and touch on a cardinal issue (e.g. the deity of Christ).”

And a heresy is not just an error. It is more serious than that. The puritan writer Thomas Adams distinguishes between mere error and heresy: Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Five: Early Church Fathers and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the fifth (and long overdue) installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” As explained in the first part of this series, Peterson quotes from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, an unnamed Jewish source, and a few church fathers to illustrate the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation restored an ancient doctrine. Specifically, Peterson says:

“With this doctrine of exaltation or human deification, though, Joseph Smith wasn’t actually moving away from Judeo-Christian tradition. He was returning to a forgotten strand of it. For ancient Christians and Jews also had a doctrine of human deification, which scholars call ‘theosis.’”

Scholars do indeed use the term theosis for what can be called a doctrine of human deification. Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Four: Esoteric Jewish Theology and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the fourth installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” As explained in the first part of this series, Peterson quotes from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, an unnamed Jewish source, and a few church fathers to illustrate the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation restored a doctrine of deification sometimes called theosis. In this fourth part, I take a look at Peterson’s unnamed Jewish source.

Peterson introduces the quotation at issue here as coming from “an early Jewish midrash or scriptural commentary.” This is the one citation from a Jewish source cited in his article as evidence that Joseph Smith’s doctrine was a return to a “forgotten strand” of “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Here is Peterson’s quotation:

The Holy One … will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever. … (And He will also) reveal to all the pious in the world to come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds.

None of Peterson’s quotations from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, or the church fathers surprised me. However, I must admit I was taken aback at this quotation from “an early Jewish midrash.” Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Three: The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the third installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” If you missed the previous installments, I hope you will read at least the first part of this series. In this third part, I will address the question of whether the Book of Mormon contains any evidence supporting Joseph Smith’s later doctrine of exaltation.

Peterson’s Proof Text

According to Peterson, that doctrine was “implicit…though perhaps unnoticed, in the Book of Mormon,” in the following statement that the Book of Mormon attributes to Jesus:

“And ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one” (3 Nephi 28:10). Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Two: The New Testament and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation

This is the second installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” To understand the issues addressed here and my treatment of them, it is more or less mandatory to read the first part of this series. In this second part, I will address the question of whether Joseph Smith’s doctrine was a restoration of truths attested in the New Testament. Continue Reading →

Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part One: The Mormon Doctrine of Exaltation

A recent article in the Mormon newspaper Deseret News (August 3, 2011) by Brigham Young University professor and Mormon apologist Daniel C. Peterson carries the provocative title, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” The term theosis is a Greek term used in the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition referring to its doctrine that through the Incarnation (the union of divine nature and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ) human beings may become united with God and in some sense like God. This Orthodox doctrine is rooted in the doctrine of several early church fathers (mostly writing in Greek) who spoke of the redeemed in Christ becoming “gods” (Greek, theoi) through the union with God that he put into effect in the Incarnation. According to Peterson, the doctrine of “exaltation” taught by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon movement, was a miraculous “restoration” of “an authentically ancient Judeo-Christian doctrine,” the doctrine of theosis.

Was it? Continue Reading →

Five Signs You Might Be in a Cult-Like Ministry

I had the immense privilege this past semester of taking Historical Theology II with Dr. John Hannah.  One day, we had a discussion about classic American cults and he talked about common distinguishing factors of these cults of which five major themes were identified.

Now I am not sure anyone reading this would voluntarily enter a cult.  If there is an advertisement hung over a building or there were pamphlets distributed that were labeled “cult”, we would probably run as well as if the elements listed below were glaringly obvious.  However, one of the deceptive tricks of cults is to gain members by promoting something attractive that will respond to the desires, wants, and lack that individuals experience.

What I found fascinating is that these elements can (and sadly do) exist in some evangelical churches.  No, not in full bloom that would label the ministry a cult – there are still beliefs founded on the work and person of Christ.   But there are symptoms, I believe, that can create a cult-like ministry.  So here are the five points that were raised in our notes and class discussion that I think make a compelling case for cult-like influences, or even worse, may point to the very existence of a “church” being a cult.

1) Time Factor – teaches new ideas: major cults have developed new ideas about what Christianity is that deviates substantially from the historic understanding of the faith of “what has been believed always, everywhere and by all”.  Christianity has existed for over 2,000 years.  It is founded on the work and person of Christ, and we have his written revelation that provides the foundation according to the apostolic witness.  While understanding of that revelation has certainly grown and developed, the foundation has remained the same.  The first four centuries experienced a refinement of definition  of what exactly is Christianity through the ecumenical councils based on the apostolic witness transmitted through an oral tradition and sacred writings.   What is interesting, is that this refining process was a result of unique ideas that were confronting the church at that time.

In the quest for cultural relevance today, tenets of the Christian tradition can be ignored or rejected in favor new ideas about what Christianity is about.  Some might go so far as to project error on the work and position of the councils or the process by which key doctrine was established.   If church leaders reject that foundation as irrelevant in favor of new doctrines and interpretations, especially where they deviate from what has been handed down, this could be a warning sign.

2)  Doctrine Factor – denies some essential of the faith: with cults, some element of the faith is majorly distorted or eliminated, such as sin, grace or Christ. Continue Reading →