November 15, 2010

The Heretic

Keepers of the orthodoxy?
In the course of my short forty-eight years, a small number of events will be etched into my memory for all time. Wars, natural disasters, presidential assassinations. I might forget my birthday, or my Social Security number, but I will never forget the evening of November 19, 1978. I was visiting my grandmother’s home, as I often did, as we watched the NBC Nightly News. It seemed that a group of religious fanatics in South America – 918 in all – had just committed a mass suicide by drinking grape-flavored Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. A U.S. congressman, dispatched to investigate the politically active sect, was shot to death the day before. Their preacher was found with a self-inflicted gunshot would, as well as a massive overdose of drugs.

And thus was born a national hysteria, and a new word entered my vocabulary: This assembly of devotees was branded a “cult,” a marginally Christian group with strange teachings and an overblown loyalty to their supreme leader.

How can I know God? Who can I trust? Believers across the country began to question their teachings and their church leaders (not a bad idea on a normal day), and they became suspicious of anyone who held beliefs different from their own.

Just last month this emotion-laden label came out of retirement yet again, this time in reference to a small band of believers near my home outside Los Angeles. Apparently, they held prayer meetings that lasted for hours. OMG! They begged the Lord to redeem our sinful world. Yikes! They renounced their worldly possessions and awaited the return of the Messiah. How dare they!

After a week or so of hysterical speculation in the local and national press, everyone was accounted for – unharmed – praying peacefully in a local park.

What, no Kool-Aid, spaceship, or child sacrifice? No hunger strike or self-immolation? No white robes, or walled commune? They have so much to learn.

Apparently, yes, they anticipated an imminent Rapture, which failed to materialize; but far from planning to kill themselves, could it be that they simply expected to be taken? From what I've seen, the news media made no attempt at such a distinction. Instead they'd rather depict religious people as a bunch of irrational loonies, and this story just didn't live up to its promise.  

In an interview with the Associated Press, a local Sheriff’s captain described his concerns about this sect. “We’ve got a group here that’s practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity. Obviously this falls under the unorthodox.”

"Unorthodox?"  "Obviously?"  Really?  So now our local constabulary are in charge of deciding what is and isn’t an acceptable religion? I don’t think so.  

In the thirty-plus years since Jonestown, cult-watch groups have multiplied. They want to take a stand for biblical truth, and call out anyone who opposes it. (Again, a good thing, in principle.) But rather than pouring out Christian love and compassion on a (perceived) heretic, they often resort to hostile rhetoric and form an exclusivist society that shuns imperfect people.

Many years ago, my wife and I befriended a neighbor couple down the street who turned out to be devout believers. Happily, we enjoyed a deep kinship with these people, as we found much common ground. Salvation, evangelism, fellowship, Bible authority? Check.

“So, where do you go to church?”

“We don’t.”


They explained: they’re so committed to sound doctrine and holy lifestyle, that they can’t find the perfect church that teaches and practices everything exactly as they believe. So they’d rather worship at home among themselves, than to get polluted by an assembly of (perceived) false believers.

No television, movies, or popular music. All women should wear ankle-length dresses at all times, and must never take a job outside the home. All children must be homeschooled, no matter what. Sports are evil because they encourage pride and competition. No alcoholic beverages, ever. No contraception. No this. No that. Like many people, they can’t feel good about themselves until they uncover all that’s wrong with you and me. You get the idea.

Good grief.

Several years ago, I read a passage in the Bible that radically changed the way I react to the sins and mistakes of others:

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:1-3)

So, you think I’m a heretic? Maybe you're right. Then show me the error of my ways, gently, and give me a chance to repent. Carry my burden for just a moment, and see how well I respond. But if this discussion becomes an adversarial encounter of you-versus-me, I will see it coming a mile away. And nothing good or godly will ever come of it. Calling my church a “cult” is the religious equivalent of an adolescent taunt in a junior high schoolyard. Or a racial slur on a street corner. It’s nothing more than mean-spirited name-calling; it proves nothing, and it converts no one.

I don’t know about you, but after 20 years as a Christian (baptized at Santa Monica Beach on October 22, 1990), I'd like to think that I’m not done learning. I have some strong convictions on many important issues, and I can support them in Scripture all day long. But guess what? I can be wrong. And so can you.

Like almost everyone out there, I'm working with only second- and third-hand information about this local sect.  And based on what little I know (or think I know), I think they're misguided.  But at worst, it seems, they're guilty only of guessing wrong about the timing of the Rapture.  William Miller did this twice, yet today the Adventists are more popular than ever.  Go figure.  So until these people start marrying off 12 year-old girls, or serving poisoned Pepsi, or stockpiling assault rifles, I say leave 'em be. Otherwise, your church could be next.

Have you ever recited the Lord’s Prayer? It says that if we want the Lord to forgive our trespasses, we must forgive the trespasses of others. Choose your battles carefully, because there’s a little bit of heretic in all of us.

1 comment:

  1. And the Polygamists don't marry young women? Perhaps not all are very young, but there are at times some that are close to that age. I agree we must forgive those that trespass against us, but .. there are very fine lines that should never be crossed. I am not 100% sure that a young age of a woman getting married is the only line that should be drawn. Perhaps others have other lines.