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A Letter to Jon Ronson


On 2 March, 2002, when British journalist and film producer, Jon Ronson (a Jew) was trying to get us to believe he would do a serious documentary on what we believe, and when he offered to ferret out the reasons the churches have for opposing us, Dave sent him the following letter, as a beginner's guide to the theological accusations and religious subterfuge that we knew he would encounter. History has shown that Ronson never had any intention of seriously examining our position. However, the message of the letter is still valid. So rather than let it go to waste, we include it here.

Dear Jon, If I were to sum up the tension that exists between us and so many other people, I would call it "uncomfortable truths". Uncomfortable truths is a phrase we have used for any teaching or revelation that challenges the way we are presently doing things, and that calls on us to make a significant change. People in general, don't like to change, and so when faced with uncomfortable truths, they resort to one of two basic strategies.

One of the strategies is to attack the truth itself, and to say that it is not true at all.

Another strategy is to attack the source of the uncomfortable truth... in this case, ourselves.

But let's start with what it is that we teach which is so uncomfortable:

Basically, we are saying that the explanation for life, the universe, and everything is to be found in the teachings of Jesus, and that an honest attempt to obey his teachings will pretty much solve all the problems that perplex the human race. We are also saying that no one else is teaching this.

(An added bonus is that acceptance of the teachings of Jesus as one's plan for life will actually lead to eternal life. However, that part is a little harder to prove conclusively and so we won't even go into it here!)

Nevertheless, it sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Until you take a closer look at the teachings of Jesus. They are loaded with uncomfortable truths, which challenge the lifestyle of the whole world, but especially the lifestyle of professing First-World Christians.

Now I know that the first reaction to this by the average person on the street is that every religion in the world is saying pretty much the same thing, that is, that they have the truth and that everyone else has missed it. In a nominally Christian country, people would say that virtually all of the churches are trying to follow Jesus. But there is a really simple way to test this, and here it is:

Go to any of those professing Christians (from any and all denominations) and ask them to tell you ten or fifteen things that Jesus instructed his followers to do. What I mean are direct commands recorded as having been said by Jesus in the four gospels. Obviously, if we're all trying to obey Jesus, then we should not only be aware of what he has said, but we should be trying to obey what he said.

Ask people on the streets, people going to and coming from church meetings, the clergy, the elders, the theologians, missionaries, street preachers, seminary and Bible school students. You will be very lucky if you can find even one person who can give you more than ten commands of Jesus off the tops of their heads. (The average will be somewhere around three or less.) Why is that? Isn't it exactly as we had said? Isn't it that the average professing Christian has not been taught to apply the teachings of Jesus in their everyday lives? They go to church, observe the rituals, mouth the creeds, obey the rules of the denomination, and leave it at that.

But let's say that you do come up with someone who can tell you ten or fifteen things that Jesus told his followers to do (or even five or six things that Jesus told his followers to do). The next challenge would be to ask them whether they think people really should do those things. Be prepared for some furious back-pedalling.

There are a couple of things that people will pay lip-service to. The most common answer will, for example, be that Jesus told us to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Most will say that they subscribe to that teaching.

But ask them how far they would go in loving their neighbour, e.g. whether they would be willing to share all that they own with a poor neighbour, so that each would have an equal standard of living, or whether they would let their neighbour use (or even have) their car if the neighbour had such a need. When faced with those kind of applications, you'll find plenty of back-pedalling even on the doctrine of love.

A lot of them, for example, would even baulk at donating a kidney to a relative or to a close friend, much less to a fellow believer whom they had never met. And yet Jesus told us to take our cross and follow him, meaning that he expects us to at least aim toward showing the kind of love that he showed, when he laid down his life for us. (Another teaching of Jesus is not just to love our friends, but to go so far as to love our enemies.)

Evangelicals may tell you that Jesus said, "You must be born again," and they will claim to support that. But on closer inspection, you will discover that the command has been turned into a five minute ritual that they are taught will guarantee them eternal life, and exempt them from any need to obey anything else that Jesus taught. They'll say that obedience is fine if you so choose, but that, once a person has been "born again", obedience is more or less optional, and definitely not a requirement for the eternal life that Jesus spoke of.

So, as I said, we come along telling people that they should be trying to obey Jesus, and if they are not trying to seriously and literally obey Jesus, then it is doubtful that they have a right in God's eyes to call themselves Christians. That upsets all of these millions of professing Christians. You want to know why they don't like us? That's it in a nutshell.

As I said above, they will then attack us on two fronts: (1) on the basis of what we teach, and (2) on the basis of who we are.

1. Attacking what we teach

The main argument will be that we are teaching "salvation by works".

There are two phrases ("salvation by works" and "working one's way to heaven") which are almost universally identified in Christian churches today as being the ultimate heresy. One can lie, steal, cheat on one's spouse, blaspheme God, murder a hundred people and still go to heaven (providing you have said the little ritual prayer or gone to confession recently), but if one is guilty of teaching "salvation by works", then such a person must be shunned, and other Christians must be warned away from that person forever.

Never mind that the two phrases ("salvation by works" and "working one's way to heaven") never appear in the Bible. They exist as the ultimate heresy in the minds of virtually all church attenders. So in one way or another, any group labelled a "cult" will be accused of such a heresy. It is akin to satanism.

Churches and clergymen can teach that God is dead; they can cheat on their wives; they can perform marriages for gays and lesbians; they can be billionaires while much of the world starves; they can wage wars with other believers; they can do just about anything and still be recognised as a part of legitimate Christianity. But if word gets around that they have been accused of teaching "salvation by works" they are tossed in the file marked "cults" and they are universally and permanently shunned.

You'll find that each of these groups (now labelled cults) have dared to criticise the establishment at some time. They have proclaimed some kind of uncomfortable truth, and then shown by their words and actions that they expect others to accept those same truths.

In some cases the truths are quite weird, and they may have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. But in our case, the fact that we try to stick rigidly to the teachings of Jesus makes the truths we teach even more uncomfortable. When the churches condemn us, they are seen to be condemning Jesus.

So there is an alternative approach to accusing us of the "salvation by works" heresy. They use the "that's your opinion" heresy.

They say we only teach our own extreme "interpretation" of what Jesus said, that Jesus never really meant for people to take his teachings literally. When he said, "Love your enemies," and "turn the other cheek", he did not mean real enemies like terrorists or even "cult" leaders. When he said, "Unless you forsake all that you own, you cannot be my disciple," he did not really mean you can't be a Christian without forsaking all that you own. When he said, "Don't call anyone on earth 'father'," he didn't really mean not to call your own father 'father', nor, for that matter, did he really mean that we shouldn't call priests 'father' or just about anyone who wants to call themselves 'father'. When he said, "Do not pray in public like the hypocrites do, but pray secretly instead," he didn't really mean that we should not stand up in front of congregations and recite prayers into microphones each Sunday.

The list goes on and on. Our response is to sit there reading it out of the Bible without note or comment. We don't need to "interpret" anything, or even give our opinion. We only have to do our best to obey it, and that upsets them. If there really are two different interpretations, we are prepared to stand ours up against theirs on a level playing field. They are the ones who have to protect their members from hearing what we say, and insist on exclusive rights to do the "interpreting". The reason for that is because most of their interpreting ends up making the quotation say exactly the opposite of what it says right in their own Bibles.

2. Attack who we are

When attacking our teachings fails, they start attacking us as individuals. The "cult" label is part of that. Most criticisms levelled against cults are impossible to escape. So-called cults are almost invariably all described in similar terms. They are described as manipulative; they brain-wash people; they have authoritarian leaders; they specialise in mind control; they isolate their members from mainstream society; they teach that they are the only people who are right.

(Sometimes ridiculous efforts are made to paint so-called cults as being satanic, suicidal, believing their leader is the Messiah, engaging in bizarre sexual rituals, etc. but in most cases, this is just done through association, since such genuine criticisms only apply to a very tiny percentage of the groups they oppose.)

While there may be some genuine excesses in some new religious movements, which people should rightly be warned about, the public should also understand that most of these terms and phrases are subjective observations, often made by so-called experts who have never even had any first-hand knowledge of the groups they are condemning. They know that the claims can be made about virtually anyone, and that they are difficult to disprove.

What passes for good management skills in a mainstream religious leader will be described as "manipulative" in a leader of a new religious movement. What is called teaching in a mainstream church is called "brainwashing" in a new religious movement. Strong leaders in any other organisation will be called "authoritarian" if they lead a new religious movement.

And when leaders (or followers) ask how they can convince their critics that they are not being authoritative (or "mind controlled"), the solution always amounts to disbanding the movement and disappearing back into the mainstream. "Prove you are free, by leaving the movement," people are told in one way or another... although they usually just start with, "Prove you are free, by coming away with us for a while." (That is precisely what happened with Bobby Kelly. We were the ones accused of trying to isolate him, when, in fact, it was the establishment which used the courts to isolate him from us. He's nearly 18 and still he's isolated and fearful; he is being coaxed by a youth leader in his church to promise that he will have nothing to do with us even after he turns 18, in exchange for certain favours from the youth leader.)

The claim that a group is saying that they are the only people who are right is a tricky one to refute. One may as well ask whether evangelicals think that only "born again" people are going to go to heaven. Or, to take it further, we could ask virtually anyone whether they believe that two and two can only add up to four. Truth is like that. If you believe one thing to be true, by nature, it exempts other contradictory truths from being true. Call it exclusivism, but we all practice a certain amount of it. How many HUNDREDS of groups, for example, has [British cult "expert"] Graham Baldwin "excluded" from his definition of legitimate Christianity? So who is really being exclusive in their thinking?

But our conviction about such things as the need to at least try to obey the teachings of Jesus does not go so far as to say that we think we have perfect understanding of truth, or that we think no one else has any truth in them. We just think that we are doing the "best" job that we know of, of locating and following truth; obviously, if we thought otherwise, then we would probably join whatever group we felt was doing a "better" job than us.

Well, that's more than enough for our first round of interviews. Obviously, on the spot, and speaking more spontaneously, either you or I could end up veering off into a hundred other different directions!

See you soon!

Dave

(See also Solid as a Rock, and Why Did They Kill Jesus?)

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