A court has ruled on the legality of a recent lawsuit between two Christian groups, but the law of love has yet to make itself heard. On January 5, the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas dismissed a $136 million libel suit that the Local Church and its publishing arm, Living Stream Ministry, had filed in December 2001 against Harvest House Publishers and John Ankerberg and John Weldon, authors of the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions.

The Local Church/Living Stream had alleged that the Encyclopedia accused them of criminal and immoral conduct. The book's introduction catalogued the misdeeds of unspecified cults—including rape, murder, child molestation, and drug smuggling. The Local Church claimed that by including them in the Encyclopedia, the authors essentially accused them of such conduct.

In response, Harvest House and the authors contended that the Local Church was included in the Encyclopedia based on the writers' definition of a religious cult: "a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity."

The court noted that the Encyclopedia focused on doctrinal issues. "Being labeled a 'cult' is not actionable," it argued, "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."

Amen. The day publishers have to avoid doctrinal debate is the day freedom of speech is seriously threatened. Harvest House was perfectly within its rights to publish a book about the beliefs of groups its authors find disagreeable or heretical.

Still, the word cult is a problem. For better or worse, it has shifted in meaning and has become associated with bizarre groups like the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate. To write about cults and include groups like the Local Church is to plant an unfortunate association in people's minds—no matter how many qualifications are made. We would all be wise to drop the word, except for the most extreme instances.

Just to be clear, the Local Church/Living Stream is not even close to being a cult—so their indignation is understandable. They loyally follow the teaching of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee. Lee's writings can be confusing and (to our minds, anyway) contradictory at points. But ct editors have asked Local Church leaders doctrinal questions, and their answers were straightforward and satisfying. We agree with a Fuller Theological Seminary study that concluded the Local Church represents a "genuine, historical, biblical Christian faith in every essential aspect."

Some doctrinal watchdogs accuse them of teaching modalism and deification, but their views on the Trinity and sanctification can be found in other groups traditionally associated with mainstream Christianity. If we debate them, we do so as fellow members of the family of God.

Unfortunately, the Local Church also has a history of suing those who have portrayed it as a cult. It claims to have done so as a "last resort." Yet for disputes within the Christian family, the last resort is to turn the other cheek. Paradoxically, the Local Church implicitly sabotages its argument—that it is a legitimate member of the body of Christ—when it treats fellow members as if they were not, by taking them to court.

It's time to move beyond inflammatory language and lawsuits and deal with one another according to the second great commandment.



Related Elsewhere:

Harvest House Publishers has a statement on the dismissal of the Living Stream Ministry's lawsuit. Law.com has a copy of the decision, and response from Living Stream is available at localchurch-vs-harvesthouse.com.

Christianity Today earlier reported on the lawsuit in Local Church Fights for Evangelical ID Card | Witness Lee group sues for $136 million over Harvest House cults article.

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