The Experts Speak–Edwin S. Gaustad, Ph.D.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Gaustad did not testify at the trial of Lee vs. Duddy. He did, however, research Witness Lee and the “Local Churches.” The following is a paper he wrote as the conclusion of that study and updated last year in preparation for this book.

Dr. Gaustad is Emeritus Professor of History at U.C. Riverside with a special interest in the history of American religion. He earned his Masters and Ph.D. in the History of Religion at Brown University (1948, 1951). A past president of the American Society of Church History, Dr. Gaustad is a foremost authority and author on the subject of American religions.

The courts in America have long recognized that the widest possible latitude is to be given to the free exercise of religion. A recent exception to that “long recognition,” Oregon Employment Division v. Smith (1990), aroused so much criticism and anxiety that Congress in 1993 responded with a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed into law that same year by President William Jefferson Clinton. By the enactment of this law, religious liberty was restored to its privileged position where only the most compelling state interest could justify any infringement upon its full and free exercise. It is the only freedom in the Bill of Rights to have a double guarantee: no favoritism on behalf of religion, no prohibition against religion. But as Thomas Jefferson observed in 1816, even if we have laws that provide for religious liberty, they lose much of their effectiveness if “we are yet under the inquisition of public opinion.” When efforts are made to marshal public opinion against any religious group, but especially against one that is unfamiliar and politically powerless, then “free exercise” becomes a mockery. If in that effort to arouse public passion, statements are made which are malicious, inflammatory and even libelous, then the chilling effect upon religious liberty is compounded. Thus, the excess in the exercise of one freedom (of the press) severely limits or even destroys another freedom (of religion).

After the 1978 horror and tragedy of Jonestown in Guyana, the moment seemed especially ripe for self-appointed vigilante groups to denounce all non-traditional religious movements, to speak of “cults” and mental manipulation, of authoritarian figures and a religiously imposed isolation from the mainstream. Something sinister was suggested; something un-American or un-Christian must be going on in any group that did not fall under the familiar and “safe” labels of Methodist or Lutheran, Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. The late 1970s and early 1980s seemed the right time, the propitious time to “finish off” those vulnerable bodies that did not conform or were not in every way “orthodox” by someone’s remarkably assured canon of truth. Such Spiritual Enforcers or Grand Inquisitors would, if successful, stifle all religious experimentation and smother all novel expression of the religious spirit. This is why it is necessary to challenge those who would ferret out and intimidate all who fail to “measure up” to some private standard of orthodoxy. To label those with whom one disagrees as nothing other than “Spiritual Counterfeits” who are to be defamed and denounced is to deny their First Amendment freedom of religion, even as it is to threaten the pluralistic nature of American society.

Fortunately, the courts in this land long ago abandoned the attempt to decide on orthodoxy or to punish heresy. As the U.S. Supreme Court observed in 1876 (Watson v. Jones), “the law knows no heresy.” The court of public opinion, however, is not always so restrained. That opinion, aroused by unfair published attacks, can render a verdict more powerful and damaging than that given by any court of law.

It was under these circumstances that I was requested to examine the Local Church and evaluate the criticisms levied against it by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project and Neil Duddy.

What can be said, then, about the Local Church and the Christian tradition in which it stands? Its detractors charge that the Local Church is on the one hand too authoritarian and that on the other it does not enforce sufficient discipline. What can this possibly mean? “Enforcers” complain that the Local Church teaches that Christians should not be tied to an external law, while ignoring their plain teaching to the contrary as well as the clear emphasis which the New Testament places upon the internal “fruits of the Spirit.” Members of the Local Church, it is said, feel superior to all other religious groups and even speak contemptuously of them. The history of Christianity is replete with examples of those groups who, especially in their early years, manifest a zealous assurance and unique strength that seems strikingly different from the casual or inherited religious affiliation all around them. To persecute this zeal is to rob Christianity of the reforming impetus that it has always required. The Local Church is charged with placing greatest emphasis on the group. In this regard one might reflect upon the nature of every monastic community, every segregated and persecuted sect, every utopian colony from the Quakers to the Mennonites. These latter groups today find wide social acceptance even though their stress on community far exceeded that of the Local Church.

The most powerful conformity demanded in the nation today is probably cultural (gray flannel suits and all that). Ironically, the Local Church is simultaneously charged with rescuing its members from such a conformist society and at the same time with destroying their individuality! What the critics call “mental reformation,” the proponents call conversion; the critics speak of abduction, the proponents of evangelization; the critics write in shock of “even alert, intelligent citizens” being “isolated from the social sphere in which they live and work”; proponents call it allegiance to God. The New Testament says nothing against reading newspapers or watching television; therefore, the Local Church by downplaying their importance is going beyond the New Testament-which, of course, also says nothing about shooting heroin, driving while drunk, or carrying concealed weapons. It is difficult to leave the Local Church, the “Inquisitors” maintain, without suffering “severe insecurity” and psychic pain. So it is also, should one choose to leave Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, or the Southern Baptist Convention. Even the Mennonites have problems with “shunning.” Are all these groups, then, menacing cults, or spiritual counterfeits, or psychic threats?

Those who denounce the Local Church speak with such confidence of teachings or practices “that are totally alien to biblical Christianity.” Blessed assurance these denouncers must have. For fifteen hundred years and more, sincere Christians have earnestly disagreed on the precise nature of “biblical Christianity.” There is very little evidence in America or anywhere else in the world that universal agreement on this point is just around the corner.

In spite of an acknowledged diversity of opinion on “biblical Christianity,” one wonders what the Spiritual Counterfeits Project had in mind in making so extreme a charge that the Local Church’s teachings are “totally alien” to a Christian understanding drawn from biblical teaching. As one who has specialized in the study of Christianity in America, I cannot find valid ground for such an attack. The beliefs and practices of the Local Church constitute one more variation of emphases and themes familiar in Christian history. From my observation, I conclude that the Local Church stands in the tradition of evangelical Christianity, of the Protestant emphasis on biblical authority, of the great Christian mystics’ and pietists’ concern for the inner life, of the millennia-old expectation of a New Age, and of born-again, experiential religion. They meet together, pray together, sing and study together, and grow together. They labor to be loyal to their particular vision of the Christian life. It seems enough. It also sounds very much like the free exercise of religion.

Copyright © 1995 Living Stream, Anaheim, CA, USA. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.