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 ...

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