This is a sermon by Dr. Ivor Poobalan, principal of Colombo Theological Seminary and a dear brother in the faith. It strikes me as an important sermon both as a window into the kinds of struggles with cultish distortions of Christian faith that the Sri Lankan church encounters on a daily basis and as a reminder to my fellow clergy and other Christian leaders here in the West to be attentive to grounding their parishioners in the historic faith of the church so that they are not prey to the advances of such movements here as well. Ivor’s closing advice to the local church, it seems to me, should become part of the “DNA” of our own ministries and our church culture — as it was for Jude himself.
Contending for the Faith! How to Overcome Distortions of Christianity and Cultism (An Exposition on the Letter of Jude)
Ivor Poobalan, Principal, Colombo Theological Seminary
In the last three to four years there has been a Korean movement working in Sri Lanka reaching out particularly to young, English-speaking Christians in the city. They are part of Shincheonji, a cult founded by Lee Man Hee, who imagines himself to be the “counsellor” or “advocate” promised by Jesus in the gospel of John. “God, Jesus and Lee Man-Hee are working together to restore God’s kingdom on earth through establishing the New Heaven and the New Earth spoken about in Revelations [sic]” (Roshan Mendis).
This cult operates through one-on-one Bible studies, where they make contact with an eager young Christian and offer to provide deep and meaningful teachings from the Bible. The ‘student’ is asked to make an initial commitment of 1-3 weekly meetings for a three or four month period. During this time the mentor stays in very close touch. The student is asked not to divulge information to anyone about these meetings and to continue to be a part of the church or youth group he attends. A ‘new’ way of interpreting the Bible is carefully taught that causes the student to question all her previous assumptions about the Christian faith. We thought that the cult had folded up until recently when our youth leaders became aware that sincere youth from several churches in Colombo were participating in these secret Bible studies!
“Shincheonji the Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony” is one of the most recent distortions of the Christian faith; a tradition that goes back unbroken to the very beginning, the period of the apostles.
The Letter of Jude: A Response to Distorted Christianity or Cultism
The letter of Jude begins with this explanation:
“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jd.3-4)
Jude says he would have preferred to write a letter to discuss the joys and the benefits of their shared salvation; to talk about the wonder of God’s grace, the assurance of his promises, and the joy of being a part of a redeemed and transformed community that love and support one another. But he has got wind of an imminent and insidious danger facing his Christians friends: “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith”. What was the danger?
Some ungodly men have “secretly slipped in” among the believers to influence them to follow a distorted version of the Christian faith:
- They still talk about the grace of God, but twist it to make it a license for immorality
- They still talk about Jesus Christ, but deny his singular sovereignty and lordship
In the 1970s there were two very influential cults in Colombo whose influence impacted me personally. The first was the well-known Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose distinctive mark is that they “deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord”. The JWs believe that Jesus was not the Son of God, he was in fact the archangel Michael who became incarnate in order to save humanity from sin. They argue that the Church has misread the Bible, and has actually translated and interpreted the Bible wrongly. God is going to save 144,000 special Christians and take them to heaven, and the rest of those who join the JWs will live in a paradise on earth.
I was a thirteen year old Bible Quiz student when the JWs came calling at our home. Since they were all about the ‘Bible’ my dad thought I would be the best person to engage with them – “my son is very interested in the Bible” – and that way he could get away from what he felt would be a futile religious discussion! The man continued to visit me, he gave me leaflets and beautifully illustrated books, and share the JW ‘gospel’. Eventually he managed to get my whole family to come to a JW outreach programme at the Kathiresan Hall. But one factor kept me unconvinced: the things I had been taught in Sunday School, and the Bible I was studying for myself because of Bible Quiz. In a hundred years of existence the JWs have mostly misled people who once were members of churches.
The second cult that nearly got a hold of me was called the “Children of God” or the “Family of Love”. This was a movement that had been founded by David Berg, a pastor that had been disciplined by the Assemblies of God for immoral behaviour. He broke away with a group of followers and developed a distorted Christianity. They preached the importance of being born again and studying the Bible and living a radically simple lifestyle. Their followers left family and home in order to live in communes where they tried to become the true family of love, like the first Christians in the book of Acts. But at the core of David Berg’s teachings was what Jude had said: “They pervert the grace of God as a license for immorality”.
Berg taught that God is Love, and that the highest expression of love was sex. This means that when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you”, he meant that Christians should feel free to express their true love for other people through sexual means. All these boundaries and barriers that restrict people to marriage and to one sexual partner are dogmas taught by a dead, traditional church. True Christians know that Jesus has set them free to love one another.
This group lived a few doors from our home and visited us regularly because we were five church-going kids in one house. I loved their music and secretly admired their carefree lives, but again something in me was not at peace. Their persuasive leaflets and songs and preaching and kindness still didn’t harmonize with the truths that I had been privileged to learn at Sunday School and by Bible reading. God had graciously put his Word in my heart, and even though I was not obedient to him, his grace was at work protecting me from distortions of the faith.
David Berg and the “Children of God” have wreaked moral and psychological chaos on thousands of people around the world, and today the group no longer exists but their tragic legacy of pain, guilt and shame continues to impact the victims.
Four Descriptions of People who Distort Christianity or Propagate Cultism
Jude is very focused on his one theme: Christians must contend for the faith! He has warned that “certain men have secretly slipped in among you”. Jude is clear that they are destined for God’s judgment because they have dangerously violated the limits and boundaries set by God (see vv.5-7).
He now elaborates to provide four descriptions of the people that he is referring to. We can see this by noticing the repeated expression he uses: “these people”, in vv. 8, 10, 12 and 16. Following this clue we will be able to get a better understanding of the profile of the early founders of cultism.
I. They are Reckless and Arrogant (vv. 8-9)
They base their teachings on “the strength of their dreams” or their imagination, not on a careful and responsible reading of the Scriptures. They are creative people who are willing to take risks. Risks in what they say and how they do things. Risk-takers are very attractive to certain people; we instinctively feel drawn to someone who is willing to put himself out there, and wonder if perhaps he might be right.
Jude 8 tells us three things: “they pollute their own bodies, reject authority, and heap abuse on celestial beings”. They are reckless enough to challenge traditional limits and boundaries. Like David Berg they ask, who says that you should only show your deepest love to just one person? Why do you listen to your parents and your dead church? Look at how much pleasure and joy you can have by being ‘free’!
They are arrogant because they assume that the ‘final truth’ has been entrusted by God to them and to no other. Lee Man Hee claims that he is the successor to Jesus and the one who alone embodies the Holy Spirit.
A group very close to us is led by a person who claims to be a special being with a special revelation that the church has missed for two thousand years. Bishop Dr Kirby de Lanerolle and his wife are the founders of a movement called the WOW-Life Church. They say that they have discovered an energy-source that enables them to live and thrive without eating and drinking food and water.
Some years ago Kirby claimed that God sent angels to re-set his DNA and make his body capable of living without food. So now Kirby doesn’t need to eat at all, and Fiona only has three meals a week! What is this energy source? It is the elements of the Holy Communion – the wafer and the wine – when consumed with the right understanding and the right kind of faith. This ritualistic consumption of the bread and the wine transforms the human body at the “cellular level”, and because of the “vibrations of God” our bodies become younger and healthier.
This has now led to the most reckless teaching that is central to WOW-Life: the promise of immortality on earth. The followers are now promised that they are the first generation of Christians that will physically live on and not die until Jesus returns in the future. So they expect to “push” the normal boundaries of human experience and live beyond one-hundred-and-twenty years, because the “Father intends life and not death”
We all probably know someone who has been persuaded by this movement and its teachings. Unsuspecting pastors of over five hundred independent churches in Sri Lanka have signed to come under the leadership of this movement which is now registered as the Apostolic Diocese of Ceylon. On its website we are told that: “Rev. Dr. Kirby currently holds the position of Coordinator to the Ministry of Christian Religious Affairs for free and independent churches in Sri Lanka.”
II. They are Defensive and Deluded (vv. 10-11)
The second description of “these people” has to do with their teachability and understanding: “Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand and the very things they do understand by instinct – as irrational animals do – will destroy them” (v.10).
What must we do if we don’t understand something? We must adopt a position of humble teachability. We must pursue a learning posture, looking for those who can explain these difficulties to us. We must appreciate the complexity of these ideas. But some personalities don’t want to admit that they don’t understand; it makes them feel inferior to others. So they become defensive, they cut themselves off from people who are more knowledgeable than them, they criticize them and undermine them (“slander whatever they do not understand”) so that their followers see only them on the stage or the podium.
The mentors in Shincheonji are like this. They don’t want to be confronted by knowledgeable Christian teachers, so they ask for secrecy and hide their identities and meet in coffee bars using WhatsApp or other social media for communicating times and dates. Until a few years ago attendance at the WOW Life Church was only possible by invitation, and only registered members could have access to podcasts of Kirby de Lanerolle’s teachings. It’s only from 2015 that the movement has gone mainstream.
What does Jude mean by saying “they have taken the way of Cain”? Cain was the brother who couldn’t bear the fact that Abel had offered God the “better” sacrifice. So instead of humbling himself and learning from his brother’s example, Cain killed Abel to make sure there was no ‘competitor’ to him.
III. They are Insidious and Controlling (vv. 12-15)
“These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves” (v.12)
One of the most distinguishing marks of the early Christians was their fellowship. The walls that had once divided them – race, status, gender – had been torn down. Christians related one with another in an exhilarating atmosphere of freedom. They often met in each other’s homes and ate together. A tradition that developed later was the ‘agape feasts’ (love feasts) where they ate together and bonded and enjoyed an openness and trust.
But these people with sinister intentions have got right into the church; in fact they are fully involved, participating in the church’s love feasts and “eating with you without the slightest qualm”
But it gets worse. Not only are they insiders, they have taken up important pastoral positions in the church. Jude calls them “shepherds”, a common term used to describe the pastor of a church. They have the reputation of being leaders of the church, but actually they have no real concern or commitment to the ‘sheep’: “Shepherds who feed only themselves”.
Those who have become part of a cult and have come out of it know how emotionally dependent they had become on their leader of the group. He is always in their consciousness, there are constant communications from him or her, and the thought of leaving the group becomes terrifying.
For a JW to leave the kingdom hall, or “Children of God” member to leave the communal home, or for a member of Shincheonji to leave the membership of what has been called the ‘true church’ of the New Heavens and New Earth, would be a terrifying thought.
IV. They are Critical and Manipulative (vv. 16)
One of the common features of a cult is their initial message about how the established church, Christian traditions, and authority figures in our lives are wrong, misdirected, and often led by Satan. Jude says, “These people are grumblers and faultfinders”. They are constantly critical of everything and everyone you are attached to; even pastors, parents, spouses, could be agents of Satan.
The “Children of God” would regularly teach us that the traditional church was dead and working against the purpose of God. God was doing a new thing. Similarly, “WOW encourages its congregation to pursue a deeper relationship with God through the Spirit Word over learned-response religion and that God’s love and grace transforms hearts and didn’t require outward behavior modification to enter church or His presence. The WOW message endeavored to set free religiously shackled Christians, those that once felt they would never be welcome in church and those condemned and discouraged by religion” (WOW-life website, accessed July 21, 2019). Notice how the movement sets itself up as the one that cares for these people who are misunderstood, rejected, condemned, and “religiously shackled Christians.”
Jude says they are critical (“grumblers and faultfinders”) and also manipulative: “they follow their own evil desires, they boast about themselves, and flatter others for their own advantage”. Once a person is sold out on these distorted teachings, there is no limit to what can be achieved. People become willing to give up anything and anyone that was once a part of their ‘normal’ life for the sake of this experience or its promises. One sad husband of a woman who joined Shicheonji in Korea says, “She was a wonderful wife and mother, now she thinks I’m a devil”. Others give up their wealth and property almost entirely to the movement.
How can a local church overcome the influence of distorted Christianity and Cultism?
Jude ends his letter with practical guidance on how that church would be able to overcome these reckless and dangerous distortions of the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people”. In Jude 17 – 23 the apostle presents three helpful responses: 1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian faith 2) Prioritise on your essential Christian Responsibilities, and 3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement.
1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian Faith (17-19)
The first safeguard against distortions of Christianity is the fact that Jesus and the apostles repeatedly warned about it. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Paul writes in Galatians 1:8 writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the gospel we preached to you, let them be under a curse”. John wrote the Book of Revelation to seven churches in Turkey that were struggling because of persecution from without and heresies from within.
Distortions of Christianity and cultism are proliferating at an astounding pace because through the means of digital technology we can disseminate ideas with frightening speed. But we must remember that Jesus and his apostles foretold that this would happen.
2) Prioritise on your Essential Christian Responsibilities (20-21)
Second, Jude says, the Christian believers must take personal responsibility to pursue their essential Christian responsibilities: “But you dear friends, KEEP YOURSELVES IN GOD’S LOVE, by building yourselves up in the most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ to bring you into eternal life” (20-21).
So what are the responsibilities? The main thing is to “keep yourselves in God’s love”. This refers to the intimacy and trust that we continually develop in our relationship with our heavenly Father. It also suggests that the church must prioritise of living out the implications of love more than focusing on organization and programmes. What then are the means for keeping ourselves in God’s love?
Jude calls us, first, to build ourselves up in the Faith. We are not to remain static in our appreciation and application of Christian truth. We are to grow and to change through our knowledge of the Scriptures and our practise of a Christian lifestyle. Second, we are to actively seek intimacy with God by “praying in the Holy Spirit”. Your body is the temple of God and the Holy Spirit now lives in every believer. You already have intimacy with God. Pursue and take advantage of this gift: pray in the Holy Spirit, speak simply and trust him for the daily mundane issues that face you and you will be amazed at what you will experience. Third, we are to animate our longing for the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of the promise of eternal life: “Waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus to bring you to eternal life”
3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement (22-23)
When members of the church are coming under the influence of false teachings and cultism, how should the church respond? There are different responses that are possible. Often the church is ignorant of these dangers, not even aware that such groups are in operation, nor about the serious damage they can cause to people, families and the Christian communities. Sometimes we can have an apathetic response: if people want to go after some new teacher or want to try a new fad, why not? They are individuals, and surely they can take responsibility for themselves.
Jude proposes a totally different response, a pastoral response. He suggests that we must become more active neither passive nor indifferent. In fact he is suggesting that we intensify our pastoral engagement. He recognizes that there are at least three different kinds of people in such a context: the doubtful, the endangered, and the defaulters.
The doubtful are those who have been challenged by this new teaching and are questioning the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We are to “be merciful”, compassionate, understanding, and sympathetic towards them, so that we can facilitate their comeback to a strong faith.
The endangered are those who are on the verge of crossing over into this group or movement. In such situations we are to go into a mode that is like that of a firefighter: “save others by snatching them from the fire”. It’s not a time to be discussing niceties but rescuing someone from something that can destroy them.
There is still another group. These are people who have defaulted and participated in the error. In the case of the “Children of God,” there were so many who had gone fully into the movement and then got disillusioned and come out. But they were so full of shame and guilt they couldn’t face family and especially church members. How are we to respond? Tell them that we told them so? No, we are to still reach out without compromising on the truth. Jude says, “to others show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”.
Jude has shown the importance of safeguarding the faith, contending for the faith that once for all has been entrusted to the saints. He has warned us about the danger of false teachers and cultism and described the major characteristics of false teachers. We have seen how relevant these warnings are to our time, because Jesus and the apostles have warned the church about this danger. We also know that we can do something to safeguard the church: keeping ourselves in the love of God and intensifying pastoral engagement.
So the letter ends with the benediction:
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (24-25).