Cults & Religious Liberty

A Two-Way Street: Cults & Religions Liberty

In summary,  concerning RELIGIOUS LIBERTY:
- Religious liberty is something that should extend to both Adventists and ex-Adventists alike – both groups should respect each other’s rights to freedom of religion.
- Religious liberty is a qualified and not an absolute right – the freedom only extends so far as it doesn’t infringe the freedom of others.
- Religious liberty should not extend to protect persons or groups that take away the freedoms of others, such as perpetrating sexual abuse or theft.
- The problem with many ex-Adventist cults is that they arguably engage in unethical practices that intimidate and pressure (brainwash) people to join and prohibit leaving – thereby infringing true freedom of choice. 
- Freedom of religion has to be seen as a two-way street.  If ex-Adventist cults have the religious freedom to call the official SDA Church apostate Babylon, then ‘mainstream’ Adventists should have the right to defend those views and challenge ex-Adventists back. 
- If ex-Adventists should have the freedom to proselytize (convert) ‘mainstream’ Adventists (so-called ‘sheep stealing’), that is fine; however, ‘mainstream’ Adventists should in turn be free to proselytize ex-Adventists and ‘steal’ our sheep back!

Freedom of religion is a hallmark of the tradition Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA).  Furthermore, with much irony, many ex-Adventist cults and cult leaders claim religious liberty as the primary defence for their actions. 
Sometimes, ex-Adventists even suggest their beliefs and practices should go unchallenged by ‘mainstream’ Adventists because it supposedly infringes their freedoms.  However, is religious liberty such a one-way street? Does freedom of religion mean ex-Adventists can challenge us, and call the SDA Church apostate Babylon, but we can’t challenge them?
Similarly, is freedom of religious an absolute or qualified right?  What limits should exist on that freedom?  When should the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church use its own considerable?   

What is the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church’s position on religious freedom?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has long been committed to religious liberty. 
The ‘mainstream’ SDA Church’s position on religious freedom is found in its official statement “Religious Freedom”, endorsed by General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Administrative Committee (ADCOM) in 1995:
‘For more than a century Seventh-day Adventists have been active promoters of religious freedom. We recognize the need to champion freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental human right, in harmony with the instruments of the United Nations.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a presence in 209 countries. With some exceptions, however, Adventists constitute a religious minority, and have at times been subject to restrictions and discrimination. Consequently, they have felt it necessary to stand up for human rights.
As loyal citizens, Adventists believe they have the right to freedom of religion, subject to the equal rights of others. This implies the freedom to meet for instruction and worship, to worship on the seventh day of the week (Saturday), and to disseminate religious views by public preaching, or through the media. This freedom further includes the right to change one's religion, as well as to respectfully invite others to do so. Every person has a right to demand consideration whenever conscience does not allow the performance of certain public duties, such as requiring the bearing of arms. Whenever churches are given access to public media, Adventists should in all fairness be included.
We will continue to cooperate and network with others to defend the religious liberty of all people, including those with whom we may disagree.’

Should freedom of religion be an absolute or qualified right?
Qualified only.
As far as the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church goes, it believes freedom of religions is not an absolute but rather a qualified right. As made clear in official statement “Church-State Relations”, adopted by the Council of Interchurch/Interfaith Faith Relations of the General Conference in Mar 2002:
‘The Adventist dedication to freedom of conscience recognizes that there are limits on this freedom. Freedom of religion can only exist in the context of the protection of the legitimate and equal rights of others in society. When society has a compelling interest, such as the protection of its citizens from imminent harm, it can therefore legitimately curtail religious practices. Such curtailments should be undertaken in a manner that limits the religious practice as little as possible and still protects those endangered by it…’
In countries with religious freedom on its books, this freedom is also usually seen as a qualified right and not an absolute right.
Thus, freedom of religion is not a sufficient excuse to cause harm to others, or engage in clear criminal activities.  For example, religious freedom is not a sufficient rationale permitting sexual abuse (such as in the case of David Koresh and Wayne Bent) or theft (in the case of Chick McGill), for the obvious reason that such actions infringe the rights of freedom of others. 

Are there any clear examples where freedom of religion should be curtailed?
A very good example of where religious liberty should be curtailed is the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.  As far as the official SDA Church is concerned, as outlined in its statement “Female Genital Mutilation,” adopted by the General Conference Christian View of Human Life Committee in April, 2000:
‘In some cultures, female genital mutilation is defended as a form of religious practice. While Seventh-day Adventists strongly advocate protection of religious liberty, Adventists believe that the right to practice one's religion does not vindicate harming another person. Thus, appeals to religious liberty do not justify female genital mutilation.’

Should ex-Adventist cults be free to proselytize, as long as they don’t harm anyone?
Ex-Adventist cults should be free to proselytize, which is to say free to convert people from other religions or no religion.  As made clear in the official SDA statement, “Religious Liberty, Evangelism and Prosleytism”, voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Administrative Committee in June 2000:
‘Seventh-day Adventists believe that freedom of religion is a basic human right. As Christians, they are persuaded that the dissemination of religion is not only a right, but a joyful responsibility based on a divine mandate to witness.’
As far as this author is concerned, this right should extend even to allow ex-Adventist cults to proselytize Adventist members – so-called ‘sheep stealing’. 

Are there circumstances where proselytism should be curtailed?
As outlined above, as far as the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church is concerned, the right to freedom of religion should only be curtailed to the extent that it harms others, or infringes their own rights, including another’s rights to religious liberty. As further explained in “Religious Liberty, Evangelism and Prosleytism”, voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Administrative Committee in June 2000:
‘In the context of the dissemination of religion, the issue of "proselytism" has arisen because the term "proselytism" is defined in a number of ways and increasingly is being given a pejorative connotation, associated with unethical means of persuasion, including force. Seventh-day Adventists unequivocally condemn the use of such methods. They believe that faith and religion are best disseminated when convictions are manifested and taught with humility and respect, and the witness of one's life is in harmony with the message announced, evoking a free and joyous acceptance by those being evangelized.’
One major concern with ex-Adventist cults is that they are sometimes accused of unethical methods of proselytizing.  This can include the use of ‘brain washing’ techniques (such as authoritarian controls, sleep and sensory deprivation), as well as misrepresentation (such as pretending to be the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church or some other group).  These methods are problematic as they infringe the religious freedom of others to decide – and more importantly leave if desired – the particular cult.

Doesn’t Jesus command about the unofficial disciple mean we should leave ex-Adventist cults alone to carry out their activities without challenge?
Ex-Adventists often suggest they should operate without challenge because of Jesus’ teachings in Mark 9:38-40:
‘John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’
There are a number of problems with ex-Adventists seeking to rely on this text. Most obviously, ex-Adventists are not ‘for us’ but are obviously against us.  In particular, it is difficult to say they are ‘for’ the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church when ex-Adventists claim the SDA Church is apostate and Babylon.  Thus, there is a vast difference between non-official ‘independent ministries’ that are ‘for’ the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church,  who are supportive of the mission of the official Church, compared with ex-Adventist cults, who are clearly hostile to the mission of the official Church. 

Would Jesus let ex-Adventist cult leaders alone?
Unlikely no – they’d probably be His number one targets.
Jesus was extremely merciful and forgiving to ordinary people.  However, to religious leaders, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus had some very harsh things to say. 
He certainly didn’t say, ‘They’re another group, I’ll best leave them alone.’  No, he called them vipers, and dirty cups and washed tombs!  It was precisely because Jesus challenged the false religious leaders of His day that the Pharisees and Temple elite sought to have Him executed.  Thus, no doubt if Jesus was here today, He would not simply stand idly by whilst His people left the Church by falling prayer to dangerous cult leaders. 

Doesn’t Gamaliel’s advice suggest we should leave ex-Adventist cults alone?
Yes and no.
Ex-Adventist cults also often point to Gamaliel 5:34,38, in that they should always be left alone by the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church:
‘But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time… So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail.’
There are a number points to be taken from this story.  First and most importantly, in terms of ‘let them alone’, what Gamaliel was primarily talking about was the exercise of the sword, lash or cell to control the activities of the Christians.  For example, verse 40 says that after this council the disciples were flogged. 
Within this context, the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church wholly agrees with Gamaliel’s advice.  It agrees in the qualified freedom of ex-Adventists to practice their religion without such threat of violence – as outlined in the various statements above.
However, to ‘let them alone’ did not mean to let their theology go unchallenged.  The Pharisees continued to challenge the theology of the Christians – and the Christians that of the Pharisees.  Likewise, as seen in 2 Cor 11:4,12-13,  Paul certainly challenged the theology of the Pharisees, fellow ‘Judaizing’ Christians, fellow ‘Gnostic’ Christians, and almost anyone who threatened to lead his flock astray.

Doesn’t Paul’s command against suing brethren prohibit the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church from taking legal action against ex-Adventist cults?
A final argument often raised by ex-Adventists is 1 Cor 6:1:
‘When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?’
The major problem with using this text is precisely that the ex-Adventists don’t treat Adventists as brethren – they say the SDA Church is apostate and Babylon. As such, there is no agreed recognised authority to take it before the saints.
In fact, as Jesus’ teaching in Matt 18:17 demonstrates, persons who are appropriately expelled from the Church are not treated as brethren but rather as Gentiles and tax-collectors:
‘If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’

So are there times when it might be appropriate for the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church to take legal action against ex-Adventist cults?
There might be circumstances where it is appropriate and unavoidable for the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church to take legal action against ex-Adventist groups.  As outlined in Acts 24 and 25, Paul certainly was not afraid to seek the protection of the Roman authorities, including appeal to Caesar, when his own liberty was being threatened by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Again, the official SDA Church should be guided by principles of religious liberty, which is to give as much freedom to other groups as possible.  However, in circumstances where the SDA Church’s own religious freedom is being infringed, such as the use of its property (including its name), then legal action might be appropriate and biblically justified.
The irony of course is that most of the ex-Adventist cults listed on this site have already taken legal action in one way or another. 

Does freedom to proselytize work both ways – can the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church ‘steal’ its own sheep back from ex-Adventist cults?
Probably the most important point in this whole article is that freedom of religion is something both ex-Adventists and Adventists should enjoy.  Thus, there should be a free battle of ideas.
By contrast, ex-Adventists often complain when Adventists challenge their beliefs.  With some irony, these ex-Adventists suggest that their religious freedom is somehow being infringed. However, freedom to proselytize shouldn’t just allow ex-Adventist cults to ‘sheep steal’ Adventists – it should allow Adventists to ‘steal’ their sheep back! 
The best biblical example of this is the behaviour of Paul, who simply didn’t stay silent when different preachers came along to lead his flock astray.  In 2 Cor 11:4 Paul notes:
‘For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.’
And then in verse 12-13 Paul explains that he will continue to oppose those false apostles that lead his flock astray:
‘And what I do I will also continue to do, in order to deny an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to those who want an opportunity to be recognized as our equals in what they boast about.  For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.’
Similarly, in Gal 1:8 Paul warns:
‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaim to you, let that one be accursed!’
One could equally point to Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep.  It is arguably the duty of every Adventist to seek the recovery of our lost brethren.  Spreading the Gospel doesn’t mean just recruiting that extra person in the front door – it also involves helping dissuading the two about leaving out the back door.

Thus, freedom of religion should be a two-way street.  If it empowers ex-Adventists to challenge Adventists of their beliefs and practices, then it equally empowers Adventists to challenge ex-Adventists as to their beliefs and practices.  If ex-Adventists say the ‘mainstream’ and official SDA Church is apostate and Babylon, then Adventists have the right to defend that accusation.  Moreover, Adventists have the right to suggest the same – to put ex-Adventists themselves under a microscope.
No doubt, many ex-Adventist cults and their cult leaders do not like such scrutiny placed upon them for a change.  However, as the cliché goes, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.

No comments:

Post a Comment