It was aimed at cults, but many churchmen opposed it.

Rarely has such unified alarm been sounded by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews as it was at a recent attempt in the New York state legislature to legalize “deprogramming.”

Both from within the legislature and from without, warnings of danger to religious liberty’ arose as the New York lawmakers passed a bill that sought to legislate a difference between religions and cults, between conversion and brainwashing, and between acceptable and unacceptable evangelistic activity.

The bill threatened freedom of religion, more than a dozen religious organizations said. Governor Hugh Carey agreed and vetoed the bill. He vetoed a similar bill last year.

The issue arose when a state assemblyman, Howard L. Lasher, a Democrat from Brooklyn, N.Y., proposed an amendment to the state’s mental hygiene law.

The amendment would have allowed a person to obtain temporary custody of a close relative and put him through a “program” devised to “enable” him “to make informed and independent judgments at the end of the period of temporary guardianship.”

The word “cult” never appeared in the amendment, which even specified that custody could not be “for the purpose of altering the political, religious or other beliefs” of the relative. But, like a rose by any other name, it was frequently called a “cult bill.”

In a joint statement, more than a dozen religious organizations warned, “This bill would inevitably lead to severe violations of the freedom of religion and association.… No single piece of legislation,” they said, had drawn such “unilateral opposition.” Organizations signing the statement included the New York Conference of American Baptists, the N.Y. Catholic Conference, the N.Y. Chapter of the American Jewish Congress, the N.Y. Episcopal Diocese, the N.Y. Area United Methodists, and the N.Y. State Council of Churches.

The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress said that under such a bill, the sudden “transformation of Moses upon seeing the burning bush would have been grounds for the appointment of a temporary guardian by a court, since that experience was not a ‘gradual change’ resulting from ‘maturation or education.’ ”

The bill’s specific provisions would have allowed a state court to appoint a temporary guardian at the request of a close relative for anyone 16 or older who had “undergone a substantial behavioral change” and who lacked “substantial capacity to make independent and informed decisions or to understand or control his conduct.”

Article continues below

The guardian could then hold the person for 45 days and put him through “a proposed plan of treatment.” The order was subject to extension by 30 days.

The court would have considered whether the person in question had had an “abrupt and drastic alteration of basic values and lifestyle, as contrasted with gradual change such as that which might result from maturation or education.”

The court would also have watched for “blunted emotional responses,” “drastic weight change, cessation of menstruation, diminished rate of facial hair growth, and cessation of perspiration.”

The court would then decide whether any of these characteristics “resulted from, or could reasonably be expected to have resulted from, exposure to a systematic course of coercive persuasion.…”

In determining whether the proposed ward had been exposed to such coercive persuasion, the court was to look for “manipulation and control of the environment, isolation from family and friends, control over information and channels of communication,” along with “sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, unreasonably long work hours, inadequate medical care,” “performance of repetitious tasks,” and “lack of physical and mental privacy.”

The court was also to consider evidence of “pressure to induce feelings of guilt, fear of the outside world, childlike dependency, renunciation of self, family, and previously held values,” and a “simplistic polarized view of reality.”

Finally, if the court found that a person or group conducting the alleged systematic “coercive persuasion” regularly misrepresented its identity or activity, then a judge could order the temporary guardianship.

In effect, the bill put in legal language assertions that deprogrammers have been making about a wide variety of religious groups—some of them distinctly evangelical Christian—for nearly a decade.

No one disagreed that the Lasher bill was intended to be aimed primarily at members of the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna sect, and any number of less well-known fringe sects. Likewise, the 45-day “proposed plan of treatment,” everyone knew, was a euphemism for deprogramming.

Supporters of the amendment saw it as a way around legal problems that some deprogrammers have run into. “Deprogramming” involves holding a person against his will and forcing him, by confinement and psychological stress, to question and change his views.

Deprogrammers have been known to seize their subjects physically and haul them off handcuffed and blindfolded into prolonged isolation. Some deprogrammers have been convicted on charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment and have been caught in numerous civil law suits.

Article continues below

Since an identical bill had been introduced just a few weeks before in Connecticut, where it failed, proponents and opponents felt that if the New York bill became law, it could become a model for legislation around the nation. Both sides, therefore, mounted one of the most intensive lobbying efforts of this year’s session.

After working extensively with Governor Carey’s staff to avoid the problems Carey cited last year, and after rewriting the bill more than a dozen times, Lasher submitted it to the New York Mental Hygiene Committee, and the tumultuous debate began.

During more than four hours of debate in the assembly, Mark Alan Siegel said, “I experienced sleep deprivation, I experienced inadequate diet, I experienced unreasonably long work hours, I experienced inadequate medical care—all in support for Eugene McCarthy up in New Hampshire” during the 1968 presidental race.

On its initial test the bill narrowly lost, but was passed on the second vote.

In the senate, which passed the bill on the first vote, Joseph R. Pisani of New Rochelle, a cosponsor of the amendment, said “We accept the right of every person to follow their drummer, so to speak.” but there are “people held against their wills by use of very sophisticated, very scientific brainwashing techniques.” The courts, he said, should decide the bill’s constitutionality.

In its analysis of the bill, the New York Civil Liberties Union said, “The phrase ‘abrupt and drastic alteration of basic values and lifestyle’ … could describe the phenomenon of being ‘born again’ as a Christian. ‘Isolation from family and friends,’ ‘sleep deprivation,’ ‘unreasonably long work hours,’ and ‘performance of repetitious tasks’ might apply to certain Roman Catholic monasteries.”

Leo Pfeffer, a noted legal expert on constitutional liberties, said, “Our Constitution does not recognize any distinction between traditional and accepted religions on the one hand and hated sects or cults on the other. The use or abuse of law to destroy cults threatens the security of all religions.…”

Tomas Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, wrote “The Soviet Union has a well-developed system of coercive therapeutic intervention against religious dissidents based on psychiatric mystifications. Will we go in that direction?” Lasher’s bill specified that the detention process be supervised by a psychologist or licensed social worker.

Article continues below

To these and other objections, Lasher responded, “I have been told that this bill would apply to Moses, this bill would apply to Jesus Christ, this bill would apply to Saint Paul. I say to you that is poppycock and nonsense. It is impossible to say these great men and religions talked about brainwashing, coercion, deceit, and fraud.”

Yet, just days before the bill was debated in the state assembly, a “cult clinic” in New York, operated jointly by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and the Jewish Community Relations Council, showed how delicate distinctions can be.

Ten parents discussed the problems they were having with their adult children; one was following an Indian guru. Another had joined a community of psychiatric therapists in New York City.

One mother complained of gaining 85 pounds since her son, a college student, had joined “a born-again Christian group.” Still another told how her 30-year-old son, a lawyer, had broken her rule against speaking of his religious beliefs in her house. Two years ago, she said, he joined Jews for Jesus.

Evangelical Orthodox Church vs. Spritual Counterfeits
New Denomination Debates Critic Over Authority

In 1973 a group of former staff members of Campus Crusade for Christ—including Jack Sparks, Jon Braun, and Peter Gill-quist—linked up to form a group known as the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO), consisting largely of house churches scattered throughout the United States. A new denomination emerged from the NCAO in February of 1979 with the official announcement of the formation of the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC) by Gillquist, presiding bishop of the new church and well-known Christian author. The stated aim of the new group was “the restoration of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

In the spring of 1979, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) of Berkeley, California—whose stated purpose is “to research and biblically critique current religious groups”—indicated in a letter sent to a select number of evangelicals their “serious concern” over the direction the EOC leadership was taking. Included with the letter was a report commissioned by the SCP on the Evangelical Orthodox Church and authored by Bill Counts, a former Campus Crusade associate of many of the EOC leaders and currently associated with the Center for Advanced Biblical Studies in Dallas.

The Counts paper was a preliminary draft designed to elicit response and input from those receiving it prior to its eventual release by the SCP. The cover letter expressed the SCP’s concern “to produce a report that is both fair and accurate.”

Article continues below

The EOC soon learned of the paper and charged that it was neither fair nor accurate. The EOC claimed SCP did not attempt to obtain input from EOC leaders before the preliminary report was distributed “in secret” among leading evangelicals throughout the country. In the view of SCP, the report was essentially a “working paper,” a copy of which was later sent to Bishop Jack Sparks for EOC feedback on the “factual information” it contained, before SCP’s planned distribution.

What followed was two years of extensive and sometimes heated interchange (almost entirely limited to correspondence) between officials of the EOC and the SCP and its board of reference. The two sides finally agreed to a public debate, which was held in EOC facilities in a Santa Barbara, California, suburb on June 22, 1981. The Spiritual Counterfeits Project was represented by Brooks Alexander and the author of the report, Bill Counts. The EOC representatives were Bishops C. Ronald Roberson and Kenneth G. Jensen. Moderating the debate was Curtis White-man, a member of the religious studies faculty of Westmont College.

The debate was divided into six one-hour segments, each dealing with a subsection of the SCP report: (l) History and Background; (2) General Theological Direction; (3) View of the Church’s Authority; (4) The Application of the Church’s Authority; (5) Evaluation; and (6) Recommendations. At the outset, one of the EOC representatives asserted that the SCP had resisted a face-to-face meeting. Brooks Alexander of the SCP denied the charge, stating that he had repeatedly tried to arrange a meeting with EOC officials to discuss the content of the report.

The “debate” was in fact an elaboration of previously stated positions and accusations. Neither side appeared to modify its stance on the complex and controversial issues raised in the Counts report. The exchange of charges and countercharges was orderly and businesslike. Bishop Roberson’s sometimes caustic comments were warmly received by an obviously partisan audience comprised almost entirely of EOC members and supporters.

From the perspective of the EOC, the Counts report was “a total and complete distortion of our views and church life.” In a previously circulated paper, entitled “The Anatomy of a Smear,” Bishop Roberson described the SCP staff as “little hatchet men” intent on the total destruction of the EOC. Both Bishop Roberson and Bishop Jensen categorically rejected the characterizations ascribed to their church by the Counts paper, calling the SCP publication “biased, sloppy, and false.”

Article continues below

The primary reason for the publication of the report, according to Alexander and Counts, was a genuine concern over the potential abuse of authority by EOC leaders, particularly as it applies to details of the daily lives of members. Counts stated that EOC leaders receive “authoritative words from God” telling church members what jobs to accept, where to live, and whom to many. The SCP report noted a “disturbing tilt toward extremism” in the movement as exemplified by demands of total loyalty, suppression of dissent, and a “willingness to suggest marriage breakups because spouses disagree with the EOC.”

Roberson argued that Counts had presented a distorted view of EOC authority. “It is not the central focus of our church life; we do not push people around.” Bishop Jensen explained: “We get involved in the lives of people because we care; we’re concerned. We are committed to those under our care.”

The EOC claims that much of the negative information in the Counts report is invalid evidence because it was obtained from dissidents and excommunicants. The church denies that excommunication is used to control people and claims that the SCP’s reporting of former members’ experiences is “one-sided” and “hearsay.” Those who left or were asked to leave the church were described by the EOC spokesmen as either guilty of serious sin or persistently “factious.”

Alexander suggested that the EOC had a built-in system for silencing or excommunicating those who disagree with or challenge the leadership. Counts described it as a situation wherein “you’re okay as long as you are one of us.” He claimed to have substantial independent verification of questionable actions on the part of EOC leaders toward members, and cited an example of a couple who had been subjected to abusive language by elders, including the use of four-letter words.

The EOC, by implication, linked Counts with a reductionist hermeneutic, which, it was said, is common to evangelicalism and which results in a “the Bible, me, and God” kind of mentality. In contrast, the EOC hermeneutic was described as including church tradition and catholicity. “We deny that Mr. Counts’s view of authority is biblical. Mr. Counts sees authority only in the Bible. We see secondary authority in the leadership of the church.”

Article continues below

In his concluding comments, Brooks Alexander stated that he had been subjected to more vilification and harassment from the EOC than he had experienced from any group the SCP had encountered. He asked members of the EOC in the audience to “please take heed” to the warnings contained in the Counts report, which he said were written out of a genuine sense of Christian concern.

Bishop Jensen challenged the SCP’s right to “criticize the rest of Christendom” and suggested that the real issue for the SCP was a fear of the sacramental resurgence taking place among Christians and the role of the Evangelical Orthodox Church in that renewal.


Biblical Authority Issue
Group Voices Alternative To Verbal Inspiration

The conference on “Interpreting an Authoritative Scripture” attempted, in the words of codirector Jack Rogers of Fuller Theological Seminary, “to move beyond debates about the authority of the Bible, which seem stalemated, and move on to a discussion of the interpretation of the Bible, where we all need insight.”

In spite of that intention, questions of authority and interpretation got about equal time.

References to Harold Lindsell’s book, The Battle for the Bible, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy surfaced regularly throughout the conference sessions and in informal conversations.

The conference was held in late June at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), a Reformed research-oriented graduate school adjacent to the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. It cosponsored the five-day conference with Fuller seminary.

The open, free-wheeling daily discussion and interchange indicated that the issues of biblical authority and interpretation are still lively ones in the greater evangelical community.

In the opening round, Rogers reviewed the controversy that swirled around Lindsell’s book and the charges and countercharges that followed its publication. He expressed dismay that some in the Lindsell camp represented him as holding that “the Bible, on occasion, was in error when dealing with matters other than salvation or the life of faith. That is not my position,” Rogers maintained.

“The Bible is authoritative,” Rogers stated in his paper. “I do not espouse the errancy of the Bible. Nor do I espouse limited inerrancy. If inerrancy means that the Bible is true, trustworthy, and authoritative, I believe in the full inerrancy of the Bible.”

He acknowledged that some of the misunderstanding might be traced to his own failure in responding to Lindsell’s allegations, to communicate his own viewpoint clearly. He added, however, that the Chicago Statement and subsequent pronouncements by inerrantists showed they “had a much more sophisticated doctrine of interpretation than I realized.”

Article continues below

Rogers and others lamented the chasm developing within the evangelical community over the issue. “Apparently an enormous problem of interpretation still blocks communication between some who consider themselves evangelical brothers and sisters,” he told the gathering. “My hope,” he concluded, “is that we might talk with one another more and at one another less in the future.”

Responding to Rogers, Ian Rennie of Regent College (now dean-designate of Ontario Theological Seminary in Toronto) concurred with the Fuller professor’s contention that Lindsell and others were historically inaccurate in stating that a rigid verbal inerrancy was the historic view of the church. He praised Rogers for affirming that “there is a view of biblical inspiration which stands between the verbal theory on the one hand, and on the other, those of existential inspiration, limited inspiration, and whatever else there may be, while at the same time upholding the full inspiration of the Bible, together with its full trustworthiness, truthfulness, and authority.”

Rennie contended that plenary inspiration was, until the eighteenth century, “the doctrine of virtually all English-speaking evangelicals.” Verbal inspiration, he added, was postulated as a defensive bulwark against militant liberalism. The Canadian professor emphasized that the advocates of both the plenary view of inspiration and the verbal view were committed evangelicals concerned for biblical authority and trustworthiness.

By the late nineteenth century, Rennie maintained, many evangelicals opted for verbal inspiration because “plenary inspiration, in some quarters, was increasingly shifting to some form of partial or limited inspiration, and if this was interpreted as an inevitable development in the plenary view, then verbal inspiration was almost the only live alternative.”

Rennie suggested that a resolution of the doctrine of biblical inspiration would likely contain emphases from the verbal view and the plenary view, with further refinements emerging from the ongoing discussion.

Gerald Sheppard, Old Testament professor at Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.), expressed impatience and frustration over what he regarded as an in-house quarrel among evangelicals over biblical authority. “Both terms, ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy,’ for better or for worse,” he suggested, “have taken odd turns in the internal debates of evangelicals and no longer mean the same things they did either for [the signers of] the Westminster Confession or for the Reformers.”

Article continues below

Invited to respond to a presentation, which was made by Carl Armerding of Regent College in Vancouver, on evangelical scholarship and Old Testament criticism, the articulate Union professor was brutally candid. He contended that evangelical scholars faced a dilemma when they attempted to apply established insights of critical scholarship and, at the same time, to keep the confidence of their constituency. “This focus on a particular audience, with the fine line between diplomacy and hypocrisy which it demands of a scholar with a liberal education, often colors everything,” Sheppard suggested.

The result, he charged, was that most evangelical theology emerged as “a censored synopsis” of nonevangelical theology. “Evangelicals have been caught between precritical orthodoxy and the impious ‘objectivity’ appropriate to modern criticism, unable to make up their minds about the truth of each,” he contended.

He was also critical of the mechanical view of the Holy Spirit that he maintained was evident in evangelical formulations regarding Scripture.

James Olthuis, professor of philosophical theology at ICS and codirector (with Rogers) of the conference, presented an elaborate interpretative approach to the Bible that dealt seriously with the specific text within a broader framework.

Responding to Olthuis, Clark Pinnock, of McMaster Divinity College, complained that his proposed “certitudinal hermeneutic” seemed vague and imprecise, and questioned whether it dealt seriously with biblical authority. “I take the New Testament seriously,” Pinnock said, “when it warns that Satan is in the business of deceiving the church, and that we cannot be too … clear and forthright in a matter as crucial as hermeneutics.”

He expressed concern also at “the unseen presence in all of this of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy” which, Pinnock contended, seemed to restrict the Bible’s authority “to the pigeon-hole allotted to it.”

That exchange and others that surfaced daily throughout the conference indicated that evangelicals do indeed need to devote more attention to scriptural interpretation and to norms of interpretation.

Fuller professors Charles Kraft and Paul Hiebert (in a paper read in the latter’s absence) maintained that the current inerrancy debate was not really a battle over whether the Bible was the final authority and divine revelation at all. Rather, they said, it concerned the nature and purpose of divine revelation and, more specifically, the authority of human theologies.

Article continues below

The 120 participants covered a wide spectrum: theological and liberal arts professors, pastors, graduate students, and campus ministers.

Participants repeatedly expressed distress over the polarization developing in evangelical ranks over the inerrancy debate. Many wondered about the possibility of a similar forum in the future involving representatives of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in an attempt to have viewpoints presented and considered in an atmosphere of openness and respect. Contrary to some advance speculation, the conference established no organization or continuing committee.

For many, however, the major item on the evangelical agenda was dialogue with all in that community who took seriously the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.