Harvest House, John Ankerberg, and John Weldon claim that the word “cult” as used in the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR) is a theological term. In a corporate statement published on their Web site Harvest House Publishers says:
Rather, the authors included the 1 -page chapter on the Local Church’s teachings in the Encyclopedia based on the book’s definition of a religious cult: “a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity….”1 [ellipsis in original]
Similarly, in a letter to the editors of Christianity Today, Harvest House President Bob Hawkins, Jr., wrote:
In fact the word was not bandied about recklessly; it was defined carefully and responsibly to speak of groups “whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity.”2
The problem is these two statements present only half of this particular definition of “cult” from ECNR. The full sentence in the book’s Introduction is as follows:
For our purposes, and from a Christian perspective, a cult may be briefly defined as “a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity.”3 [emphasis added]
Strikingly, this definition of “cult” has two parts, one of which Harvest House and its President Bob Hawkins, Jr., totally deleted in their public relations-motivated attempts to rehabilitate the book’s definition. The book’s definition of “cult” includes deviant practices grounded in unethical standards.4
Thus, the local churches and Living Stream Ministry would not have been included in the book if the authors did not intend to say they participate in unethical and deviant practices. The book declares that “The Local Church” along with all other groups in the Encyclopedia deserve the name “cult”.5 The rest of the Introduction amplifies this definition by illustrating the types of “practices and [un]ethical standards” “cults”, including “The Local Church”, are being accused of. The Introduction is packed with rampant accusations and examples of the kinds of criminal and immoral conduct it says are “characteristic” (i.e., “an essential element”) of cults. The introductory material also points the reader to the book’s appendix for more information. There cults are accused of occultism and idolatry, which are in turn associated by the authors with murder and “inevitably” human sacrifice.
The publisher and authors tacitly admitted that such a reading was reasonable when they drafted a revision to “The Local Church” chapter which said:
The Local Church, with about 2500? [sic] churches globally, is unique among the groups in this encyclopedia. It is not a cult in the negative sense of the term, nor do the characteristics of cults in the Introduction generally apply to them.6
Claiming that “cult” is merely used as a theological term in the Encyclopedia has become Harvest House’s “lie of convenience.” It has served the purpose of the Defendants, but an honest examination of the facts shows it to be untrue.
4It also draws a distinction between “cults,” “sects,” and “aberrational Christian groups.” According to the Encyclopedia, a group that holds heretical doctrines (in the eyes of the authors) but is not guilty of deviant behaviors is a “sect.” Groups that are more or less sound doctrinally but contain “some or many of the behavioral or other aberrations found in cults: authoritarianism, isolationism, financial exploitation, elitism, legalism, spiritual and psychological intimidation” are labeled as “aberrational Christian groups.” All of the groups listed in the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions are identified as “cults”. Based on these distinctions, it is clear that groups identified as “cults” are being accused of both categories of deviations—theological and sociological, the latter including criminal, moral, and social deviancies.