Apologetics Index

CRI Statement regarding its support for the Local Church

The Christian Research Institute has released a “Position StatementPDF file” in “response to those who have inquired regarding the Amicus filings by Hank Hanegraaff and Gretchen Passantino.”

It is titled, “Statement from Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action: RE: Our Amicus filins on behalf of the Local Churches.”


We believe the court’s dismissal to which this appeal is being made was a dangerous, precedent-setting decision that greatly interferes with our First Amendment rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion. Furthermore, this precedent sets a lower standard for religious publishing than for secular publishing and demeans commitment to truth. Finally, we believe the consequences of the court’s decision are life- and liberty-threatening to Christians living under repressive, religiously persecuting regimes.
– Source: Statement from Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action: RE: Our Amicus filins on behalf of the Local Churches, Position Statement: PSL001PDF file

CRI’s statement is a study in confusion, leaving more questions than it answers.

Mistaking the Introduction for the Entry

The most glaring problem in CRI’s statement is that both Hank Hanegraaff and Gretchen Passantino appear to have bought in to the very issue the court has so thoroughly rejected: it appears they believe that an excerpt from the introduction of the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions could be construed by – as the court’s ruling puts it – “a person of ordinary intelligence,” to apply equally to all the groups listed in the main part of the book – the Local Church included.

That is what the lawsuit was about:

What is the lawsuit about?

The Local Church claims that The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (from here onward, referred to as the Encyclopedia), published by Harvest House Publishers and authored by John Ankerberg and John Weldon, defames The Local Church, The Local Churches, and Living Stream Ministry by accusing them of criminal and immoral conduct. The Local Church, on their website www.contendingforthefaith.org, states that the Encyclopedia’s Introduction “clearly labels all of the groups in the book as being guilty of the most deplorable, illegal and immoral acts.”

However, much to the contrary, the book does not attribute such activity to The Local Church or its followers, nor to “all of the groups in the book.” In fact, a reading of the Encyclopedia clearly shows that a large percentage of the groups do not have criminal or immoral conduct attributed to them. As is the case with almost all of the groups in the book, The Local Church was included on the basis of their significant theological deviations from biblical, orthodox Christianity–deviations found in their written and published materials that have to do with key essential doctrines about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the future state of the believer, and so on.

The Local Church has attempted to argue that a small number of general statements in the Encyclopedia’s Introduction and Doctrinal Appendix–statements about the characteristics and activities of various cults–apply directly to them. But in actuality, there was never any intent for the general statements in question to ascribe misconduct to any specific group, and the language of the Encyclopedia does not at all support their contention. Thus the book does not defame The Local Church.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that The Local Church, in its lawsuit, does not dispute the accuracy of the Encyclopedia chapter that comments on their beliefs. This chapter is only 1¼ pages in length and includes fully documented quotes taken directly from publications produced by The Local Church and Living Stream Ministry. Neither does The Local Church dispute the accuracy of any of the more than 1,350 fully documented quotes in the rest of the 731–page Encyclopedia.

What was said about The Local Church in the Introduction of The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions?

Absolutely nothing.

What makes this defamation lawsuit peculiar is that The Local Church is never named in the Introduction of the Encyclopedia, nor does the group dispute anything said about them in the chapter on The Local Church. In their suit, The Local Church alleges that, in the Introduction, a general list of characteristics of cults and a brief statement about criminal behaviors that have been exhibited by some cult leaders or gurus might give readers the impression that The Local Church exhibits immoral characteristics or participates in criminal activity. However, before these traits are mentioned, the Encyclopedia’s Introduction very clearly says “not all groups have all the characteristics.” The only way a reader of the Encyclopedia can possibly determine the characteristics or activities of any particular group is to go to the specific chapter that discusses that group rather than look at the Introduction (and, in fact, people know that’s how an encyclopedia is used). Of significant note is the fact that a large percentage of the chapters in the Encyclopedia deal only with theological deviations, and make no mention of criminal or immoral conduct whatsoever.
– Source: Questions and Answers about The Local Church’s Lawsuit Against Harvest House Publishers and Authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon. Harvest House Corporate Statement, Mar. 12, 2004

In its ruling the Court wrote:

The church contends that some of the conduct mentioned in connection with the characteristics of cults – prostitution, rape, beatings, molesting children, drug smuggling, and murder – are facts that can be proven false, and, therefore, actionable under Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 20, 110 S. Ct, 2695, 2706-07 (1990) (holding that statements of “opinion” may be actionable if containing facts provable as false).

The publishers and authors, however, argue that the characteristics of cults – including the criminal acts that the church contends are provable as false under Milkovich – “cannot reasonable be interpreted to defame every group in the book.” In other words, the publisher and authors argue that the second element of a defamation claim – that a defamatory statement was made concerning the plaintif – cannot be met. We agree.
– Source: Ruling 01-04-00231-CVPDF file, Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas

What the Encyclopedia says

Notice what the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions stated in its introduction:

The characteristics of the cults illustrates the applicability of the term. Here are a dozen characteristics of cults and new religions that we have documented in both Volune One (The Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs) and in this current Encyclopedia on the cults and new religions. The list is not exhaustive. Not all groups have all the characteristics and not all groups have every characteristic in equal measure, but if we were to make “the perfect cult,” criminal cults excluded, it would include the following.
– Source: Characteristics of Cults, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, Introduction page XXIII.

The secton of the Introduction this quote appeared in is headed, “Characteristics of Cults.” Later in that same section, Ankerberg and Weldon write the material the Local Church finds objectionable:

When people are manipulated in different ways for ulterior motives, as cults are shown to do in this Encyclopedia, is not this to be condemned? Those cult leaders or gurus who have encouraged their followers to oppose moral convention, denied their followers blood transfusions or medical access, encouraged prostitution for making converts, sometimes raped women, beaten their disciples, molested children, practiced black magic and witchcraft, engaged in drug smuggling and other criminal activity, including murder – do they not deserve the condemnation of us all? And such things have occassionally happened in what many people regard as the “respectable” cults.

If physical poisons like arsenic, strychnine and cyanide kill quickly, spiritual poisons like cults kill slowly, for they induce the deadly elements piecemeal. That makes them no less dangerous, just less visible. Thus, is not the greatest threat of the cults their obstruction of salvation?
– Source: Characteristics of Cults, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, Introduction page XXIII, XXVI.

In between these two quotes is a lengthy section dealing with the applicability of the term “cult.”

A person of ‘ordinary intelligence’ will conclude that the Local Church went out on a limb with its defamation claim. To see this claim essentially resurrected by Hank Hanegraaff and Gretchen Passantino is both puzzling and worrying.

Confusion about the term ‘Cult’

In its ruling, the Court points out

The Introduction of the Encyclopedia defines a “cult” as “a separate religious group generally claiming compatability with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of Biblical Christianity.” In their motion the publisher and authors claim that the Introduction “centers on doctrinal and apologetic issues.” We agree.

[W]e conclude that being labeled a “cult” is not actionable because the truth or falsity of the statement depends upon one’s religious beliefs, an ecclesiastical matter which cannot and should not be tried in a court of law.
– Source: Ruling 01-04-00231-CVPDF file, Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas

CRI’s statement, however, under the heading of “Explanation of Reasons” says:

ECNR defines “cult” in not merely religious or theological terms, but crucially in secular emotive, psychological, and social terms. It is not in those areas where their definition agrees with standard theological definitions that we take legal issue, but in those areas where their definition transcends those agreements (the theological) to those areas that are properly under the jurisdiction of our legal protections against libel and slander–the secular aspects of their definition.

While our courts quite rightly are prevented by our Constitution from deciding the truth or falsity of theological or religious claims, our courts are expressly charged with deciding whether or not secular claims are upheld or libelous in issues such as fraud, sexual abuse, false imprisonment, larceny, bioterrorism, pedophilia, and so forth (the kinds of characteristics ECNR uses for cults). When ECNR attributes those kinds of actions to the groups they term cults, they are placing themselves in a position to be challenged legally in the realm of libel if they cannot substantiate their charges. That ECNR frequently uses terms such as “criminal” in association with these accusations underscores this point. In its introduction, doctrinal appendix, and at various places throughout the text, ECNR makes declarations clearly and completely outside the constitutionally “safe” realm of theological or religious terminology and judgment.

These declarations illustrate and further define their use of the word “cult.” Such uses are clearly in the jurisdiction of the courts, and for the dismissal to deny that such an actionable realm exists sets a dangerous precedent.

The court in its dismissal erroneously concluded that “cult” can only be used in a religious sense and therefore was not actionable in court. Although the court did not explicitly use the term “only,” the thrust of its entire decision was that the use of the term “cult,” regardless of its definitional parameters, kept it in an untouchable religious realm. Far from giving away First Amendment protection for theological or religious speech by supporting this appeal, we are working for that protection by arguing that the court had neither jurisdiction nor evidence to determine that the term “cult” was necessarily religious and therefore immune under any circumstances from court supervision.
– Source: Statement from Christian Research Institute and Answers in Action: RE: Our Amicus filins on behalf of the Local Churches, Position Statement: PSL001PDF file

Hanegraaff and Passantino admit that the court did not explicitly use the term “only.” It did not have to, as their decision referred to a specific case dealing with a specific issue – in which the Local Church tried to make the court believe that statements in the Encyclopedia’s introduction were defamatory to each and every group listed in the book.

Granted, the term “cult” has a long, troubled history. It is a confusing term as it can be used in both a theological and a secular sense – and, partly as a result, means different things to different people. On this, see Cult: Sociological vs. Theological Definitions.

However, one can reasonably expect that Christian apologists – Hank Hanegraaff and Gretchen Passantino included – have an understanding of these issues. Unfortunately, their recent support of the Local Church along with their combined statement in defense of their actions demonstrate not just confusion on the proper use of the term ‘cult,’ but also a worrying lack of discernment.

Jill Martin Rische, daughter of the late Walter Martin – founder of the Christian Research Institute currently headed by Hank Hanegraaff – made these comments in response to CRI’s latest statement:

They seem to think that by throwing around big words and phrases like “First Amendment rights” and “dangerous precedent setting decision” that this somehow justifies their sneaky behavior. Uh, uh (wags finger) no, no . . . it does not. I just happen to think they’re silly now as well as sneaky.

First, they advocate Christians suing Christians–because it protects free speech and free exercise of religion.

My response to this is . . . huh??

Second, they accuse Harvest House of lowering the standard for religious publishing, which is hilarious in a bizarre kind of way as I thought Hank’s plagiarism had done that. As for commitment to truth . . . (wait–I have to get my inhaler).

My response: People in glass houses . . .

Third, they drag in the great saints of God from across the seas–people living through hell every day of their lives for the glory of God–and say they (Hank and Gretchen) are supporting the Local Church for their sakes!

My response: Have they lost their minds?? How can this egocentric lawsuit set any precedent in the U.S. or overseas? Sorry Hank and Gretchen, it’s just not that important.
– Source: Jill Martin Rische, Walter Martin Ministries Blog, Oct. 18, 2006 entry

Additional Issues

The Hanegraaff/Passantino friend of the court briefs indicate that both apologists currently view The Local Church as theologically in agreement with the essential doctrines of the Christian Faith. Here’s why that is a problem.

And here – ironically from the pages of the Christian Research Journal, published by the Christian Research Institute – comes the question: Friend of the Court or Friend of the Cult?

Research resources on the Local Church

Article details

Category: Living Stream Ministry, Local Church, Lord's Recovery
Related topic(s): , ,

First published (or major update) on Wednesday, October 18, 2006.
Last updated on July 07, 2024.

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