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Without apology

Religion | Protests follow Hank Hanegraaff's support for lawsuit against apologists

Issue: "Too close to call," Oct. 28, 2006

Some religion watchers who specialize in cults have had a falling out among themselves over The Local Church (TLC), aka Living Stream Ministry and The Lord's Recovery.

TLC was founded by the late Witness Lee, a disciple of revered Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee.

Lee migrated from China and Taiwan to California, where he developed exclusivist notions about church structure and a sometimes radical approach to evangelism. He also promoted unusual views of the Trinity and other doctrines. These teachings earned TLC a "cult" label from some apologists.

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Evangelical authors/apologists John Ankerberg and John Weldon included a short entry about TLC in their Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (Harvest House, 1999). TLC leaders fired back with a $136 million libel lawsuit in Texas against the authors and publisher. They contended that TLC's mere inclusion in the book tarnished them with the same brush used to paint the misdeeds and heretical teachings of some other groups.

A Texas appeals court dismissed the suit last January. The court said being labeled a cult isn't actionable because it involves religious beliefs open to individual interpretations, out of bounds for court determination. As for the grounds for the suit, the court said the book nowhere accused TLC of the alleged criminal misconduct mentioned in the book's introduction.

TLC has since appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Surprisingly, TLC got a recent boost from anti-cult apologist and broadcaster ("Bible Answer Man") Hank Hanegraaff. He heads the Christian Research Institute (CRI), a Southern California--based apologetics ministry founded by the late Walter Martin, an opponent of TLC. Hanegraaff filed an amicus brief with the Texas high court in support of the appeal. He said TLC is Christian in theological essentials and not a cult. He warned that the decision interferes with First Amendment and other rights.

Gretchen Passantino, another well-known apologist and writer who formerly worked for CRI, filed a similar brief.

Storms of protests by other cult watchers came down on Hanegraaff and Passantino. They asked why Hanegraaff would want to risk having a court intervene in matters of doctrine, and why he is supporting a lawsuit against an evangelical publisher and two Christian apologists. Apologetics scholar and seminary dean Norman Geisler said he was "shocked" by Hanegraaff's "unwise and unfounded" action.

Hanegraaff posted an explanation of his move on the CRI website (equip.org/free/psl001.pdf). He expanded on the reasoning in his brief, contending that the decision was a "significant legal mistake" that sets a lower standard of accountability for religious publishers, and poses adverse implications for Christians living under repressive regimes.

He alleged the Enroth-Weldon book went "outside the bounds of both responsible theological analysis and responsible public accusation by using the term cult as a pretext for otherwise legally libelous language."

Apologist Don Venoit of Midwest Christian Outreach told WORLD that longstanding "personality issues" also figure in the dispute. But, he added, the legal issues indeed are serious, and what Hanegraaff advocates could harm apologetics and other publishing endeavors.

CRI officials did not return a call seeking further comment.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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