Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. --Ephesians 6:10-12
According to Ephesians 6:10-12, one of the Christian church’s more elementary tasks is spiritual resistance fighting. In fact, the way Paul writes about it, it seems that standing “against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world” is one of the underlying contexts from which many Christian activities take place. And that would certainly include the activity of evangelism.
Now, one may be tempted to spend a great deal of time identifying those authorities and powers, especially in a discussion about evangelism to cult members. In many discussions of that caliber, the assumption is too often made that those authorities and powers use the new religions as their primary mode of expression. Evangelism based on those assumptions, however, has resulted in a remarkable insensitivity to the members of new religions. In the worst cases, cult members have been treated, ipso facto, as living vessels possessed by demonic hordes or as the “brainwashed”: those for whom the secular rites of exorcism or deprogramming are prerequisite to any attempt to evangelize. Those extreme attitudes, of course, are not in alignment with the biblical teaching on both the nature of the authorities and powers and the status of the unconverted, irrespective of their religious leanings. The repeated occurrences of those perspectives in the recent literature and seminars of the Christian church suggest that important biblical teachings on evangelism, particularly as they apply to cults, are being neglected.
So, while the Ephesians text asserts that it is not against flesh and blood that we struggle, it is certainly in the context of flesh and blood that we evangelize. That sort of careful balance emerges in the most pertinent biblical texts on evangelism.
When Paul was writing to the church at Rome, which was suffering severe persecution by the Roman emperor, he gave this bit of advice: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). One does not overcome evil simply by assessing its roots, however; more is required. Instead of merely focusing on either the deceptive context of our cultures, which may be nurturing the rise of the cults, or on the unbiblical teaching of the cults themselves, we should also concern ourselves with something far more fundamental to the task of evangelism. That is, to embody what is so good about Christ that it overcomes whatever evil it comes in contact with.
That means, first of all, that evangelism cannot be viewed apart from the qualitative whole of the Christian life. How we live is part and parcel of what we proclaim, no matter how loud our verbal declarations may be. Following from that is the conviction that we must evangelize out of our discipleship, not merely out of our expertise on the cults. We do not need a cult specialist to help us apply the Bible’s teachings on evangelism. The current proliferation of para-church counter-cult organizations, while positive in many respects, is at the same time alarmingly indicative of a widespread insecurity among Christians about their discipleship. It may also suggest, to a greater extent than we care to admit, that Christians in the West today have adopted a notion of specialized discipleship which breeds their insecurity. If personal and corporate discipleship are fully operative, however, they become the basis which Christians can rely on for authentic verbal proclamation, rather than on the borrowed expertise of some cult-research organization.
That leads to one further point preliminary to our consideration of any specific field of evangelism. In John 6:37-40 Jesus says:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
That passage has tremendous import for any discussion of evangelism. Jesus is speaking of what is extremely difficult for us to understand, that is, the interactive dynamic between our efforts in evangelism and the assurance of God’s authorship of conversion. Jesus’ statement, “All that the Father gives me will come to me...” is immediately qualified by “...everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life....” Perhaps what is most appropriate for us, as a prelude to any discussion about a specific type of evangelism, is to meditate upon the intersection of those two statements. To consider the interface of the causality of God in conversion and the responsibility of the individual to believe (and, by extension, our responsibility in the proclamation of Christ in whom a person may believe). To lean too much on one side or the other will inevitably limit our approaches to evangelism. But to balance at the center point of those two qualifications may unlock the kind of assurance and ease in evangelism Christians need that will allow the Holy Spirit to operate to his fullest capacity through them.
With that much said, let us turn to what is, in my opinion, the most pertinent New Testament text to any discussion of cult evangelism (of which Luke provides only a summary)--Acts 17:16-34, Paul’s “Mars Hill discourse.” In the discourse, there are three distinct, though overlapping, phases of Paul’s approach to evangelism that we should pay special attention to. First, the attitude with which we approach the spiritual seeker. Second, the content of our proclamation vis-à-vis his or her entrenched belief system. And third, the nurture of the new believer once that person has come into a regenerative relationship with Christ.
In verse 16 Paul expresses an attitude that has been appropriately described as compassion and distress in tandem: “...he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” It is biblical for Christians to be provoked both by the physical and the spiritual evil in the world--evil that distorts spiritual, physical, and social affairs. You will notice, however, that the Apostle’s attitude creatively changed between the time he was provoked and the time he began speaking on Mars Hill. Paul shows himself to be sensitive to the legitimacy of the personhood of the Gentiles to whom he is speaking and their spiritual search, their quest to know God. Paul even goes so far as to quote one of their Greek poets in the phrase “For in him we live and move and have our being.” That is analogous to a quotation from Swami Satchitananda easing into common Christian parlance after being pulled out of its fallen Hindu context. Paul identifies with the effort of spiritual searching.
Paul’s attitude is one that we should emulate when we talk to people who have adopted an alternative spiritual practice. We should approach them, not as individuals who embody the full character of evil, but rather as men and women who are reaching toward God, toward ultimacy at least. Somewhere in their spiritual odysseys, those people have been misdirected, diverted. Perhaps they started out with complete sincerity but have found themselves, years later, entrapped and dissatisfied. Paul takes that into account during his discussion and gracefully engages his listeners who are practitioners of unchristian pieties. Paul emphasizes the inability of idolatry to satisfy the expectations that the Greek cultists had for themselves. He points to one major flaw in the cultists’ system--the altar to the unknown God. He uses that idol as a port of entry into the belief system of the Athenian cultists. From that point of entry, he is able to disassemble their false belief, pointing out that their expectations cannot be fulfilled. “. . .since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man’s design and skill.” That is a noteworthy tact for Christians to adopt in communicating with cultists.
To apply a theological critique of the authorities and powers to the flesh and blood idolator was not Paul’s way, and neither should it be ours. There is no moral legitimacy or excuse for telling idolators that they and their beliefs are evil, either directly or indirectly, without first exploring their personal interest in religion. We should search for the motives which stimulated that person to search for religious satisfaction. Often, the motivation for joining a movement may not be fulfilled. Followers may stay in a movement because they’ve learned an occult, linguistic paraphernalia by which to interpret their new experiences, but they have not found answers to the questions which initiated their search. They may still be searching for those answers and have opted for a movement which promised them solutions but has not yet fulfilled that promise. The Greeks were unsure of their commitments, too. That is why they built an altar to an unknown God. That altar illustrated their religious insecurity and allowed Paul to begin questioning their beliefs. Once I became a Christian and began to ask questions of my new age friends, I realized that various movements are thwarted by their inability to make ends meet philosophically. Doubt and confusion trouble the members’ minds; consequently, sensitive questions often make sense to them.
Several questions can tactfully challenge the belief system of the cultist to prove itself. Does the movement’s theology support its description of spirituality? Does the spiritual experience of the member live up to the description of spiritual experience promoted by the group? Does the group’s belief structure have enough depth and integrity to account for the member’s spiritual experiences? Oddly enough, in a number of new religions the answers to those questions are found wanting and do not justify the member’s commitment to the movement. One popular group, for instance, lacks theological reasons for why the Deity should respond to the prayers of members who are not married. Most of the members are not married, yet they exercise fervent prayer lives. Such questions are helpful, therefore, and it appears they were part of the Pauline witness to polytheism in the Roman world.
The idea that a person who espouses a mystical philosophy is incapable of receiving linear thought or rational challenge to their ideas isn’t true at all. It is difficult to get rid of your rational mind. It is only the “enlightened” few in Eastern movements who have blown their minds to the extent that they have eliminated all rational thought. The Sanskrit word Nirvana means “wind into nothingness,” blown into nothingness, and it is a long, hard road to that condition. Therefore, we should never be afraid that our attempts to ask rational questions are not being understood. Oftentimes people will put up a facade of nonlinear, nonrational thought because that is how they think they are supposed to act if they are going to be enlightened. Underneath that facade, however, those men and women are confused and in doubt, trying to figure out how secure and real their spirituality really is. They ask themselves, If all is one, why don’t I experience oneness all the time?, If my experience is guided by the blown into nothingness, why am I still thinking?, Why do I have doubts?, If I am God, why am I still disappointed with myself? Those are basic questions about the spiritual satisfaction to be found in new age groups and cults. People don’t need particular expertise to ask them, and we shouldn’t be put off by a lot of cosmic fluff answers.
In Acts 17 Paul suggests that even though the Greeks are very sincere, their sincerity is not enough. Their beliefs are limited, loaded with deficiencies. He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it...does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything....” Paul cuts against the grain of the Greek-made idols and against the spiritual technology which they used. Spiritual technology is different from ritual in that power is manipulated by the practitioner and only the practitioner. Spiritual technology is important to new age people because it is the avenue of salvation. If the technology is not applied correctly, the practitioner must come back in a reincarnated life and master the right performance. Technologies are the means of getting from one side to another. Paul’s message to the Athenians is that the biblical God is larger than their gods, implying that Christianity offers humanity greater value and genuine spirituality.
If Christians are able to communicate to individuals that they are not just cogs in the cosmic wheel but special creations of God, those people can be influenced to consider the Christian worldview, a view which satisfies their initial desires f or spiritual belief and experience. The progression of our proclamation to people in new religions is threefold. In order to meet the legitimate spiritual needs of those people, we need a concept of sin that is not trivialized, an indepth description of the cost of discipleship, and a way to introduce spiritual practices.
Christians often focus on the little instances of sin in which all humanity participates and attribute them to the person with whom they are talking. In so doing, we can fail to point out the wholism of sin, the vast encompassing web of which an individual’s sin is just one small and fairly insignificant part. it is important to know how deep sin goes, both in the human heart and in the world system. That is particularly important because people within cultic systems often have an acutely accurate perception of sin and evil in the world. They are trying to carve out, in both consciousness and lifestyle, an alternative to that system. When Christians propose a shallow description of world travail, they lose their audience. The cultists think, How trivial. What a little spiritual trip that is. My analysis goes so much deeper already.
One of the many relevant biblical texts on the all-encompassing aspects of sin comes from Malachi 3:5. Speaking through the prophet, God says, “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” That citation indicates the interactive, corporate web of evil in the world system from the spiritual through the moral levels to several dimensions of personal-political perversion. People in the cults have at least attempted an analysis of the world system that approaches such depth. We should be aware of their thoughts and bring a full Christian view of sin into discussion.
What follows naturally is a discussion of a resolution to the problem of sin--a description of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ purpose of redeeming humanity and commitment to his people should be emphasized. The simple phrase, “Jesus died for your sins,” has been rendered virtually meaningless in today’s context of acculturated Christianity, radio/TV evangelism, and a hundred trivialized representations of Jesus commercialized through mass advertising. People committed to a new religion have given 100 percent of their energy to their belief. They will not respond to a message that is less demanding and has been culturally compromised. Examining the life of Jesus and his relationship to the disciples provides a good model by which to introduce Christian discipleship to someone in a new religion. As Bonhoeffer once said, there is no such thing as “cheap grace.” That grace, however, brings great benefit and is well worth the price.
The third element emphasizes the spirituality available to disciples as they begin the process of reality-testing the Christian faith. Each Christian should be able to introduce a convert to the spiritual dynamics--communion with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit, prayer, and devotion--operative in the Christian life. We fail if we simply present a Christ who is limited to the realm of doctrine and intellectualization without also presenting a Lord who fulfills our subjective epistemological longings by grounding them in the absolute reality of Christian spirituality. Converts from new religions are unlikely to persevere in their faith if it does not provide them with spiritual practices that replace the ones they have just given up.
Converting to Christianity from a new religion involves a large transition in the perception of spiritual practices mainly because Christian spirituality is a relationship with the Divine, not a technology. That transition may be tumultuous and exhibit an unusual combination of influences and beliefs. Christians should tactfully persist in discipling the convert, however, and allow the transition period to run its course without getting discouraged by the natural confusions that attend a conversion of that type.
I have an excerpt from a diary which illustrates the type of confusion that exists during that transition period. Using biblical criteria, one may wonder if the author of the diary is going to make it in his or her Christian life. If I were to employ the criteria sometimes used to evaluate the views of new religions today, it seems doubtful that this person has a future in Christian discipleship. Nevertheless, it is the writing of a new convert.
Like a finely polished mirror shining brighter than the moon, blinded to the very sun and all it shines upon, so let some tarnish grow, and the glare soften, and the ultimatum is clear, to fall tumbling into countless incarnations as lower forms if I stop meditating, or face eternal damnation if I don’t accept Jesus Christ as the only door to eternity. My, what momentous decision for such a feeble mind as mine. Really awesome. No one should have to be faced with pop-goes-conceptual—mind confusion, nowhere to turn, nothing to hang onto, yet such freedom in this stance, poised in the instants of being spit out of the womb, and Christ says, “This is how I must be found.” I don’t know whether I was set up or not, but I trust the outcome. Jesus Christ is the door and he is in my heart. Whether he’s attached to being called that particular name, or whether he’s always been in me and asking him to come in was just some psychic aikido to pry loose the ego from identifying with inherent divinity prematurely, I don’t know. But speculations can be endless, and concepts can never catch up to now. But reality moves so fast, it’s always standing still, and there in that stillness, in that assurance, is the freedom to be just what I am, which is just what I am, and that’s all. Some would extend that to say, “And all is one.” Maybe it is. Thank you, Jesus.
What would you think of a person who wrote that? He or she is a little confused?, getting ready to start a new religion? Well, that was my journal entry one week after my conversion.
Transitions may take time and, obviously, they take patience as well. A strong presentation of the Christian perspective of sin, the necessity of a full commitment to Christ, and a demonstration of Christian spirituality, however, will see that that transition period has every opportunity to succeed.
David Fetcho was a yogi in Ananda Marga for four years and co-founder of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project. He is currently director of New Performance Consort, Berkeley, California.