Monday, August 22, 2005

Why I Don't Believe in "Counterfeit Christianity"


"Counterfeit prophets who speak of a counterfeit Christ who preaches a counterfeit gospel can yield only a counterfeit salvation."

- Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions (Zondervan, 2001), 19. Italics in original.

"Whew! John has finally come to his senses once again," will likely be the thought, and perhaps even the vocal response aired by some of my former colleagues in "counter-cult" ministry when the read the title of this post. With my shift away from traditional apologetic approaches to new religions and toward a cross-cultural missions paradigm, some have expressed concern for me in a number of areas. With the title of this post they might think that this signals a return to the counter-cult fold, but as continued reading will demonstrate, I have a decidedly different perspective on the concept of "counterfeit Christianity".

A common concept in evangelical and fundamentalist treatments of "cults" is that of counterfeit Christianity. While a few evangelicals might hold to a broad version of this concept wherein all non-Christian religions are spiritual counterfeits, perhaps most evangelicals would hold that at least the Bible-based groups, or those which spring from the Christian tradition, are counterfeits. Thus, new religions such as The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Watchtower Bible and Society would fall under this categorization. But even with the tendency in evangelicalism to utilize a more narrow definition of counterfeit Christianity, it is not uncommon to see other religions or spiritualities, such as the New Spiritualities (or "New Age") also conceived of in this light, even though the New Spiritualities make no pretense at being Christian, and hence difficult to conceive of as a counterfeit of Christianity.

But I question the concept of counterfeit Christianity on a number of grounds. This post will not be exhaustive, but it will provide readers with a few of the reasons why I believe this concept is faulty, and why it hinders our understanding of and response to new religious movements. I believe the concept of counterfeit Christianity is conceptually inaccurate, exegetically problematic, and inappropriately applied by some segments of evangelicalism to new religions, and at times, to world religions as well.

1. The nature of a counterfeit. When we consider the nature of a counterfeit, we might imagine a personal agent purposefully crafting something which is designed to look very much like a genuine article of some kind, but which is subtly engineered in such as way as to purposefully deceive. However, when we look at new religious movements, we see great diversity and complexity, and great divergence from Christianity. Even with those new religions which have arisen out of the Christian tradition, the great divergence in their foundational worldview, doctrines, and praxis makes it very difficult to conceive of them as meticulous counterfeits of traditional Protestant expressions of Christianity. Unless we engage in a form of reductionism and gross simplification, even the Bible-based new religions are significantly different than Protestant Christianity, which should give us pause before accepting and applying the concept of counterfeit Christianity to such groups.

2. The identity of the counterfeiter. If we continue to dissect the concept of counterfeit Christianity we must address the identity of the alleged counterfeiter. As evangelicals have tried to explain the existence of other religions traditionally there are three possibilities here: a) Satan, b) idolatry through human sin, c) influence of the sin-damaged imago Dei. Space limitations in a Blog post preclude any sustained analysis of each of these possibilities, so I will make brief comment on the most prominent view in evangelicalism.

Many evangelicals, particularly in the counter-cult community, identify Satan as the personal agent responsible for the creation of spiritual counterfeits. We might note in response that no biblical text explicitly states either that there are spiritual counterfeits, or that Satan is the creator of such alleged fabrications. Evangelicals have formulated this view based upon inferences drawn from a handful of biblical texts. One that is especially popular in counter-cult literature is 2 Cor. 11:2-4, 13-15. In this passage Paul mentions "another Jesus," a "different Spirit" and a "different gospel" presented by "false apostles" and "deceitful workers" who disguise themselves to look like genuine apostles, just as Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. From this passage the inference is drawn that there are various false prophets and apostles, and that they present a counterfeit form of Christianity under the influence of Satan as the ulimate counterfeiter. This passage, and the concept of counterfeit Christianity, is then applied to "cults" or new religions, particularly new religions arising out of the Christian tradition.

3. Problematic exegesis and application. But is this the best interpretation, and application, of this passage? Fresh theological reflection might give us reason to rethink this. P. W. Barnett, following C. K. Barrett, argue that Paul is referring not to those who oppose him from outside the Christian fold, false apostles from a first-century Mormonism, if you will, but rather, that Paul is referring to Jewish converts to Christianity who were "Judaizing Jews". Barnett concludes his essay on this topic by stating that, "It is their cold-blooded invasion of his sphere of ministry, marked by deceit and pretence, which has evoked from the apostle the strong and polemical language which is the mark of 2 Corinthians 10-13."

With this exegetical perspective in mind, the false apostles Paul so strongly condemned were those who attacked Pauls' own apostolic credentials, and sought to place Christian converts under the Mosaic law. From this interperpretive perspective, Paul was addressing false teaching and false teachers within the church, and not responding to "cults" outside of the church that might be considered in some sense a counterfeit of Christianity. If this interpretation is correct, then as we move to application it would seem inappropriate to apply this text to new religions in our own time. Paul's language and concepts do not support the notion of a spiritual counterfeit, and his concern is with false teaching within new Christian churches, not with first century religious movements outside the church.

We need t o move beyond the concept of counterfeit Christianity in order to further our theological and missiological research program on new religions in more promising and fruiful directions. In this Blogger's opinion, evangelicals might benefit from greater theological engagement with other ideas as they develop a theology of religions, particularly in the area of sensus divinitatus, and the theological reflection that begins with pneumatology in the creation which then moves toward consideration of Christology and soteriology. The concept of spiritual counterfeits is a highly problematic and questionable one, and which is in need of reassessment in light of sound theological and missiological reflection.

Resources for Reflection

P. W. Barnett, "Opposition in Corinth," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 22 (1984): 3-17.

Terry C. Muck, "Is There Common Ground Among Religions?", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 1 (March 1997): 99-112

Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Baker Academic, 2003)

11 comments:

Jeff Downs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom Jones said...

John, I can appreciate that counterfeit is not the perfect description of new religious movements which are not in agreement with Christianity (Many of the originators of false religions have been renegades from the church, by the way). It would be helpful if you could offer a more accurate label for those who are in error when compared to the essentials of the faith—a term that would not necessarily be used in conversing with NRM followers but that would have a practical application in dialog amongst ourselves.

Jeff Downs said...

Tom said: Many of the originators of false religions have been renegades from the church, by the way).

Right Tom! The two big ones (among many others) come from a Christian background.

But, besides that, these groups are viewed by the unbelieving world as Christian. I think one responsibility that the Church has neglected, is pointing out that they are not. Now, this is just a statement of a problem. How we (the Church) go about the business of informing the world is another subject.

John, misses the boat on a number of points. Besides, perhaps, I'm just not reading as much as he is, but who in the Countercult community uses the term Counterfeit Christianity. I'm not saying we don't use it, but is this a usual description? If not, why address it.

Anonymous said...

Any terminology can create a divide. Human language is often inadequate. Whatever terminology is used matters not to me on this particular day as I continue to reflect on our recent visit to my husband's family in Saskatchewan. His mother left the Roman Catholic church after the death of his father, and became a JW. Why? Partly because they were available to her in her pain. My husband is the proverbial black sheep of the family as he has chosen to follow the Jesus who is God. They are absolutely convinced he is apostate and they are the true Christians. They are Us; we are Them. I would love to find a phrase that would dissolve that divide. If only life and religion were that simple. wendy peterson

John W. Morehead said...

I find it interesting that there have been several previous posts in this Blog discussing a number of important issues, but it was the post on counterfeit Christianity that has attracted the posts from folks in the countercult.

Tom writes about his concern over "renegades" in new religions who were a part of traditional Christianity only to leave and form "cults". Another slant on this is to consider the idea attributed to J. K. Van Baalan of "cults as the unpaid bills of the church". The church has failed to address a number of areas of theology and praxis, and it may be such failings (among other factors), rather than satanic activity, that fuels the birth of new religions, particularly those arising out of the Christian tradition.

Tom then asks for a label to apply that will help identify those groups that raise evangelical concerns over heresy. I appreciate this desire, but the perspective behind it, and the question itself, misses one of the purposes of this Blog. We have spent a great deal of time and energy contrasting heresy with orthodoxy (I disagree with Jeff in his post where he sees neglect in the church), and I am asking us to step outside the countercult paradigm for a while to consider other disciplines and perspectives on the issue. As to substitute labels, while all terminology in this field is problematic, the accepted academic term is "new religious movement". It is possible to use such terminology as a descriptive label, and to approach various groups and movements from a variety of perspectives, including theological, sociological, and missiological. We've got the heresy issue covered with a vengeance, perhaps we can move on to other things.

Finally, Jeff wonders whether the term "counterfeit Christianity" is used much anyway, and if it's not used, why touch on the topic? A quick search on Google reveals that a number of countercult, discernment, and apologetic ministries use the term and the concept, including a major national countercult organization. The concept is also found in a number of countercult books. Given the prevalence of the concept, and the limitations (and hindrances) that it entails, it's time to reassess the idea.

Jeff Downs said...

John said: I find it interesting that there have been several previous posts in this Blog discussing a number of important issues, but it was the post on counterfeit Christianity that has attracted the posts from folks in the countercult.

Perhaps, because we just became aware of the site.

John says:
Another slant on this is to consider the idea attributed to J. K. Van Baalan of "cults as the unpaid bills of the church". The church has failed to address a number of areas of theology and praxis, and it may be such failings (among other factors), rather than satanic activity, that fuels the birth of new religions, particularly those arising out of the Christian tradition.

But, before this, he states:

(I disagree with Jeff in his post where he sees neglect in the church)

So, he does disagree with me, or does he? I would agree with him and Van Balen that "The church has failed to address a number of areas of theology and praxis,"

Countercult apologists have been saying this for years. This is old hat.

I don't necessarily disagree with the term Counterfeit Christianity, I think it fits nice in certain contexts. I like the term Cult and and I don't even mind using NRMs.

Can you give some references (books, articles in journals) where Counterfeit is used by the mainstream CC apologists?

I have no doubt the term in the literature exists. Just wondering if you did some of that kind of research before you wrote this piece.

John W. Morehead said...

Jeff, I disagree with you when you state that the church has neglected addressing the question of heresy as it relates to some new religions. The countercult community has taken care of this with a vengeance. We may be in agreement if you accept the notion that one reason why such groups may arise out of the Christian tradition is because of failures in Christian theology and praxis. By this I do not mean that we need to merely refute heresy or continually hammer our systematic theologies into church members. For an exploration of issues that would reflect my feelings on this matter see the paper on this topic written by Philip Johnson at the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities listed in the links on the sidebar of this Blog.

The concept and term "counterfeit Christianity" cannot fit nicely in certain contexts if the shortcomings I briefly discussed have any validity. To appreciate this you need to take off the lenses of the countercult, and try on a different pair.

And yes, I did do research on countercult ministries and individuals who use the concept and term before I wrote this piece. I find it difficult to see how anyone who has been in this segment of evangelicalism could not be familiar with it. I do not intend to "out" ministries on this or any other topic, and to cause unnecessary conflict when the desire is to stimulate fresh thinking. If you take just a moment to do a Google search you will find the name of a prominent, national countercult ministry that uses the term.

Jeff Downs said...

John stated: Jeff, I disagree with you when you state that the church has neglected addressing the question of heresy as it relates to some new religions. The countercult community has taken care of this with a vengeance.

You can disagree with that conclusion, but you would be going against what you have stated and writen the in past. As you have acknowledged, Countercult Ministries are on the fringe of Evangelicalism.

Also, Para-Church ministries are not the Church. You and I both know that there is only one denomination that has taken up this cause, as a denomination...that being the Southern Baptists.

John said:
The concept and term "counterfeit Christianity" cannot fit nicely in certain contexts if the shortcomings I briefly discussed have any validity.


Validity is the question, isn't it!

I did not say I wasn't familiar with it. As a matter of fact I said "I have no doubt the term in the literature exists."

When you write a piece such as this, it would be nice if you referenced some resources so people know who you are talking about. That way, they can go back and see how Counterfeit Christianity is being used.

John W. Morehead said...

Wendy, thank you for your comment. It is insightful to recognize that our terminology can indeed divide, and prevent us from hearing each other in genuine dialogical fashion. Our attitudes and methods can also divide, and I have tried to touch on some of this in various posts. Would that evangelicals would take these considerations to heart in missions in Western contexts. Perhaps a place to start would be moving beyond concerns for labels (even the generic "non-Christian" label says more about what we think they are not than what they are) and simply relate to others as human beings following different paths. As we walk our own Emmaus road with these fellow spiritual travelers how might we tell the story of Jesus as His disciples that speak meaningfully into the context of our fellow travelers?

Jeff, I think this recent post highlights a continued misunderstanding you have of what I write. If you take all that I have written from various sources and reconsider it you will see that I have not contradicted myself. But I don't want to turn this comments section, or this Blog, into a debate forum. There is enough of the verbal and written parry and thrust in the countercult community.

I will state though that I envision para-church ministries as an extension of the church, and made up of people from the church, so that from this perspective "che church" has addressed the question of heresy, and in my thinking has focused on this perspective to the neglect of other considerations, such as missions.

I hope you were able to do the Google search to find an answer to your question concerning the use of the concept of "counterfeit Christianity."

Finally, while I appreciate that this post has generated a lot of discussion, be advised that I will not be able to respond to every comment as my schedule does not permit this. I hope that my posts can stimulate new thinking, and I would encourage those who agree and disagree with me to interact with the resources I recommend, including those related to this topic at the conclusion of the post, as well as the links I have posted on the right hand side of my Blog. Engagement with these materials will facilitate a better understanding of the issues, and my perspective on them, and might help cut down on queries in comments.

Let the Internet classroom experience continue, and may missional perspectives provide you with new possibilities and "permissibilities".

Jeff Downs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff Downs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.