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)