When is a heresy a cult?
Spiritual movements produce bizarre and often cult-like offshoots. Nowhere is this truer than in Brazil.
The explosion of Christian faith in Latin America, and indeed in the world, occurs in an environment where ideas framed by hope, accelerate popularity of some giving influence to self-proclaimed prophets.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is now a world phenomenon. Beginning in the 1970s, its founder Edir Macedo had come to Christian faith in the Igreja Cristã de Nova Vida a Brazilian Pentecostal church pastored by a Canadian, Robert McAlister, of the famous pioneering Canadian family of the early 20th century. Macedo broke away from McAlister and today claims churches in 200 countries with millions of members.
“Solomon’s Temple” in downtown São Paulo, is an exact replica of Solomon’s Temple destroyed in 586 BC: precisely four times its size. Its massive presence, gilded by a golden dome, is an eye catcher. Daily meetings, it has taken hold in unsuspecting ways.
The basic doctrinal statement of the Universal Church seems orthodox enough, but it has built itself around leadership, attracting to themselves not just astounding numbers but enormous amounts of funds. Spinning its outrageous prosperity theology – in effect, “give to this church and God will make you rich” – and combining that with artistic and dramatic flare, its crowds and multiple churches is like nothing I’ve seen.
Throughout church history there has been no shortage of heresies and cults. Here are working definitions: heresy a deviation from the orthodox, a twist from what is considered primary in the Gospel; cults are more extreme extending its heresies to exercising emotional control, resulting in psychological manipulation. A heresy is a deviation, the group often returning to orthodoxy. A cult – often becoming exclusive – entrenches in its members’ a particular identity. The church has a history of many kinds of both heresies and cults.
Tertullian (160-240 AD) an early church father, joined the Montanists, a heretical group claiming new revelations by the Spirit. Father Saint Simeon the Stylite, lived for 37 years on top of a platform, 50 feet high near the Syrian city of Aleppo to avoid being interrupted in his spiritual journey. Odd, maybe even heretical, but not injurious to the faith.
Luther was less than helpful in the brutal war on peasants. Cromwell did his best to destroy the elements of the church, which he believed were deviant to the pure faith he sought. Some Pentecostals in its early years asserted that if one didn’t speak in tongues, you didn’t have the Spirit which in effect said you weren’t a believer, a heresy that soon bit the dust.
Most Christian heresies find there way back to orthodoxy. Some don’t.
Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, in 19th Century wrote in Science and Health that illness is an illusion and can be overcome by prayer. Considered a cult, they never returned. So with the Jehovah Witnesses based on an errant view of Jesus. Mormonism, another American spiritual invention, mixed biblical material with the writings of Joseph Smith – The Book of Mormon. What you may find surprising is that for years some of its senior leaders have engaged in an Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue with Richard Mouw, past president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Who can predict where this may lead?
Back full circle to the Universal Church. Many have come to faith through the church and in time returned to a more orthodox Evangelical church. Many have been reordered, reclaimed and set on a path of Christian living and service by its influence. As disturbing are some of their doctrines, they have led many from disbelief, replacing it with wonder and belief. Yet its message is in so many ways biblically misleading that discerning Christians view it as spinning in an orbit of heresy, if not the cultic.
Its founder and leader, Edir Macedo will in time pass from the scene and with that will come change. However how will its/his wealth be managed? – A matter that gives power and prominence to its leaders.
But what creates such spiritual interest and vulnerability, ranging from an honest inquiry into faith, to the vaudeville where religion becomes the best show in town? There are three considerations.
People hunger for answers to identity, values and personal wellbeing. The cosmopolitan and urban congestion brewing within the pot of globalization generalizes identity and crowds out personalization.
There is also a human attraction to the mystical, giving us reason to rise about the humdrum, to wish past concrete spaces. The spectacular universe suggests there is something more than what the diet specialists, secularists, lifeless worship meetings or boring preachers tell us.
And who among us isn’t interested in hearing how to move from personal failure to success, from broken promises to actualizing dreams or from brutality of abuse to a sacred space of loving protection?
The gospel speaks personally and credibly to all of these longings. What is distressing is the glitter tossed on the Jesus-from-Nazareth answer. Winsome and even calculating personalities dress up what is eternally true with huckster-smooth antics and accouterments. But all of this should not blind us to what is in the hearts of people, as they wonder and wander, searching for answers. We best be careful that we not too quickly, accuse those who follow such spiritual hybrids, assume they are out of touch with reality.
The sacred hangs in our consciousness. Human depravity reproduces gross misrepresentations of what has been created holy, beautiful and wonderful. So who then will link me to the history of his creation and his humanity?
The Universal Church seeks to do that, and in so doing puts stars in the eyes of those who stare with unblinking stupor into the face of a cruel and banal world.
Who knows what will be its future or that of other religious amalgams dressed up in “Jesus” garb? Before we out rightly condemn what is less than orthodox, or that which meets disfavor with our majority or sounds discordant to our theological ear, best we exercise caution, modesty and humility.
This does not mean we avoid addressing heresies, blithely hoping, “It will correct itself.” Biblical literature clearly addresses wrongly held beliefs. Good theology matters. Biblical doctrine is important. The point surely is, let’s advance in humility, knowing the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.
Jesus brought his disciples up short when they suggested they bring fire down on Samaritans for their inhospitality. On another occasion, Jesus’ parable reminds us not to try and pull out the weeds to preserve good grain, as they will be separated in harvest. The soil of contemporary human life is inviting, indeed vulnerable to promises of faith. It is always the right time to sow good seed.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance