Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 278-283.
A Statement of Evaluation Regarding Maranatha Campus Ministries/Maranatha Christian Ministries/Maranatha Christian Church
A Committee of Evangelical Theologians
In November 1982 a group of concerned evangelical Christians met for two days in Santa Barbara, California, with the leadership of Maranatha Christian Ministries (MCM) and three theological advisors to MCM. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a number of serious problems relating to the teaching and practices of MCM. The signatories of this statement were among those present at that meeting. All of us share a common interest in new religious movements; some of as, by virtue of our organizational or academic ties, have been heavily involved in research and writing in the area of cults and aberrational Christian groups.
Because of our involvement in this area of study and research, and because of the public visibility of the various organizations with which we are associated, it was understandable that we would receive inquiries about a relatively new and unknown organization called Maranatha Campus Ministries (or Maranatha Christian Ministries and, more recently, Maranatha Christian Church), which was becoming active on university campuses throughout the United States. Many of the reports we received, along with a growing number of newspaper accounts, were highly critical of MCM’s impact on the lives of some individuals and families.
It was for the purpose of discussing these concerns that we convened the meeting in 1982. Before that meeting and since, we have been gathering information from various sources, including MCM, in order to assist us to better understand and evaluate the activities and doctrines of this organization. The present statement is a brief summary of our conclusions.
It should be noted from the outset that the leadership of MCM, although generally cooperative with our efforts, differs considerably from us with regard to the objectives of our inquiry, the methodology we used, and especially the conclusions we have reached.
From the very first meeting in November 1982, the ad hoc committee saw as one of its primary goals the gathering of information and documents so that a fair and comprehensive evaluation of MCM could be made. As part of that evaluation process, we agreed in 1982 to “communicate again in November 1983 to assess the progress made by MCM.” On January 5, 1984, we issued a report to the MCM leadership which was highly critical of MCM. but which was the result of our sincere and honest appraisal of the group. In the Preface to that report we affirmed the biblical principle of spreading the truth in love.
The MCM leadership responded that we had focused on the negative and had failed to assess the progress made by MCM since November 1982. MCM’s perception of the role of our committees, in short, was that we should have restricted our assessment to “the positive things that have happened.” That view of assessment was in sharp contrast to the commune’s own view of itself as engaged in a careful and comprehensive evaluation which included both positive and negative components.
There was also a major divergence of perception between the committee and MCM leadership concerning the nature of the “assessment process and the means by which information and evidence would be obtained. MCM has expressed concern that we relied heavily on material and information originating in the period of &m prior to the November 1982 meeting and has suggested that we limit our. Assessment to the post-1982 period. This again was in sharp contrast to the view of the committee, which has not limited its investigation to the period since 1982. Logically, it would seem to follow that the concerns which caused us to meet in the first place (in 1982) would continue to be part of the focus of our research. However, it should be made clear that much of the material which we have gathered has been obtained since November 1982 and applies to that more recent segment of our inquiry.
MCM has viewed negatively our discussions with former members who were part of the organization prior to our initial meeting in 1982. In our attempt to talk with both former members and current members, we saw no reason to limit the time frame for our investigation. We think that the MCM leadership failed to understand that our concern about and “assessment” of their organization was not limited to the period from November 1982 to November 1983.
MCM has expressed the view that the committee has not lived up to its promises with regard to the often-cited statement of November 20, 1982. It is their contention that we have not provided them with sufficient documentation of specific instances of complaint or concern which have been brought to our attention so that they MCM might investigate and address the specific problem situations. In fact, what has frequently occurred as we sought input from all available sources was, for example, a situation in which parents would refuse to provide us with detailed information unless we promised not to reveal their names to MCM leadership. Whether the parents’ perception of the situation was correct or not, the fact remains that they felt that their relationship with their son or daughter would be severely impaired if such information were made public. We decided to accept their testimony and to honor their requests for anonymity. The fact that such requests were regularly expressed by parents is in itself worthy of reflection. On those few occasions when parents agreed to have members of the committee act as neutral third parties, the MCM leadership acknowledged that we had indeed followed the “guidelines” as set forth in the November 20, 1982 statement.
The committee does not feel it has engaged in any inappropriate investigation, including the above-mentioned sources, nor was it improper for us to receive input from individuals not currently or directly involved in situations requiring investigation or resolution by MCM leadership. We mention this only to underscore our belief that MCM has narrowly interpreted and misapplied the November 20, 1982 statement.
The committee has indicated to MCM leadership, and herein repeats its conviction, that MCM may have indeed generated considerable good will in the evangelical community. But we have consistently felt that the MCM leadership did not want us to make public any adverse comment about their movement.
With the foregoing discussion providing a necessary background, we now present, in very abbreviated form our comments and evaluation concerning MCM. All references to MCM apply to the movement as a whole, and not to any specific congregation or campus location.
Concerns About Doctrine
Since orthodoxy is essential for any group seeking to follow Christ, we have examined various MCM materials, including galleys of their most recent revised editions, for their doctrinal content and soundness. There has been disagreement between MCM and the committee regarding the value of these materials in evaluating MCM theology. MCM has maintained that “the opinions and teachings expressed in these books … do not necessarily reflect the views of every elder, nor have they been approved by the Board of Elders as official doctrine.” In the absence of any other “official” material, the committee has maintained that materials published by MCM, taught by MCM, required by MCM for reading (such as Bible Studies for a Firm Foundation), defended by MCM, and even revised and corrected by MCM as a result of our criticism, should be representative of MCA’s theology and theological methodology.
From our examination of MCM materials and communication with both former and current members, we, first of all, could not detect a complete system of theology. There were some essential areas of theology for which we could find little or no teaching. Second, we discovered what we perceived to be a number of doctrinal and methodological problems. We presented these to MCM in 1982 and, consequently, some revisions and changes in the materials were made. In our Report of 1984, we again mentioned problem we had observed. As a result, MCM has indicated that some other changes will be forthcoming. MCM has also provided some further explanation regarding certain doctrinal matters.
We believe that MCM is an evangelical Christian ministry. We recognize, from our assessment of their ministry, that we have some clear doctrinal differences with MCM. But even taking this into consideration, we believe there are some major concerns in the areas of theology and theological methodology that still bear watching and therefore should be mentioned here.
Although MCM seeks to regard the Bible as their final authority, there are some teachings and practices, such as receiving personal “revelations” (i.e., a “word from the Lord” regarding a doctrinal point or point of practice), which could, in effect, negate this affirmation. Even though MCM has repeatedly stated that such “revelations” (“words”) are to be tested by Scripture, and cannot go against the clear teaching of Scripture, our concern has been that MCM’s use of a “subjective” hermeneutic is insufficient to effectively test the truth of a “subjective” revelation, because both are “subjectively” derived. Thus, it appears to us that there is at least the potential for the final authority to rest more with the “revelations” of MCM leaders than the Bible.
We appreciate the report in MCM’s Response that “in the past year, our pastors have been much more concerned with the context within which a particular scripture appears. They have been concerned about the historical and language background of the passage.” But we still believe that much more is needed. For example, in our opinion, the materials in current use still fail in general to demonstrate even those principles of historical grammatical interpretation mentioned above by MCM. All too frequently, the materials present teachings based on arbitrary allegorization, decontextualization, isogetical interpretation, and unsubstantiated premises. Apart from the issue of a proper interpretation and use of Scripture, we are concerned that a lack of adherence to objective hermeneutical principles could provide the potential for the elevation of personal “revelation” to a place equal to, if not superior to, the Word of God.
We have yet to see in MCM materials or receive from MCM any definitive presentation or explanation of their doctrine of the Trinity. Although MCM has now affirmed its agreement with the Lausanne Covenant (i.e., “…belief in one eternal God, Creator and Lord of the world, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit..”), they still have not clarified to us whether their understanding of that statement is modalistic (one God in three forms, modes, or offices), trinitarian (one God in three Persons), or broad enough to include both modalism and trinitarian.
Finally, despite much clarification and explanation by MCM, we still have concerns regarding their understanding of the doctrine of the church, especially in the area of authority. Though this is an area of doctrinal difference that we have with MCM, we believe that MCM could improve itself by giving more consideration to the priesthood of believers, and the accountability and limits of church leaders.
While the aforementioned are but some of the concerns we have, they are nevertheless important ones that need to be considered by the larger Christian community.
Concerns About Practices
The effects which religious groups have on individuals who join them are extensions of the theology and teachings of those groups. In our opinion, some questionable practices and some reported impacts on the lives of members are a result of certain emphases and teachings of MCM.
It is our opinion that MCM has an authoritarian orientation with potential negative consequences for members. It has been reported that leaders have used personal “revelation” from God to exert strong influence over the decisions of individual members’ decisions regarding their academic careers, their spiritual life, and their personal affairs. Former members have indicated that they were discouraged from raising questions or exhibiting dissent. They have reported that those who questioned the hierarchy were said to have a “spirit of rebellion.” Less than total Commitment to the goals of the leadership was sometimes interpreted as spiritual weakness or the result of “demonic” influence.
Despite comments by MCM leaders, it is the committee’s opinion, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that rank and file members have not been encouraged to think critically (i.e., discerningly) about the teachings of MCM or to examine alternative biblical positions.
MCM has stated to this committee: “We do not view other groups and individuals outside our ministry with condescension or disdain.” Despite that protestation, we have verification from various independent sources that MCM leaders foster feelings of spiritual elitism and a “greater anointing” vis-a-vis most other evangelical Christian groups or churches. As one ex-member described it, “We were the most dynamic, exciting young people for God they had ever seen…God’s Green Berets!”
From our perspective, it is clear that MCM has experienced considerable adversarial relationships with families of members. Parents have reported that their children have become secretive, evasive, distant, and sometimes hostile. Maranatha correctly observes that some of these problems derive from the fact that many of the young people they minister to come from non-Christian backgrounds and therefore some misunderstandings are inevitable. However, it is our observation that even Christian parents have expressed more than a little concern abut MCM’s impact on the personalities and behavior patterns of their sons and daughters. MCM leaders seem to discount such statements as evidence of misunderstanding, persecution, being “singled-out” or examples of isolated events.
The MCM teaching regarding dating practices is another example of clear differences of opinion between the committee and MCM leadership. As a result of its so-called “dating revelation,” MCM discourages normative dating practices and cites extreme examples of sexual misconduct (even among other Christians) in the collegiate subculture to justify its stance. Public statements by top MCM people to clarify the organization’s position have sometimes been unclear and confusing. MCM asserts that this is not the case.
Based on our discussions with former members, some of whom have been in leadership positions, it is our opinion that MCM has a tendency to make some individuals overly dependent upon the organization. It is also our view that MCM may exert a strong influence on the personal and spiritual lives of members, creating the appearance of manipulation and regimentation.
MCM explains that the problems which we have briefly mentioned here are “isolated events” or can be understood largely in the context of particular family or personal circumstances. While we allow that such explanations may sometimes be valid, we maintain that the information we have obtained is sufficiently convincing for us to conclude that MCM continues to create a psychospiritual context which could have negative implications for some members.
Finally, we understand that MCM does not publish a yearly audited financial report. They have responded favorably to suggestions we have made regarding fiscal matters, and we hope that they will indeed institute needed changes in this area, too.
In conclusion, it is our opinion that MCM has failed to distinguish properly between the nature of a private grievance procedure and a public issue requiring public comment. It should be noted, however, that this Statemen4 in its entirety, has first been communicated privately to the leadership of Maranatha Christian Ministries. Because of the public nature of the questions being raised by others about MCM, it is our opinion that wider discussion of these concerns is needed in both the Christian and non-Christian communities. Those of us who have signed this Statement have been approached by individuals as well as by national organizations seeking our evaluation of MCM, and we hereby present a summary of our concerns.
Until we have clearer understanding of the changes which MCM claims are being implemented and until we see more discernible evidence of change in the lives of people being impacted by MCM, we would not recommend this organization to anyone.
Ad Hoc Committee
Dr. James Bjornstad, Academic Dean, Northeastern Bible College, Essex Falls, New Jersey
Steve Cannon, Director, Personal Freedom Outreach, SW, Phoenix, Arizona
Dr. Ronald Enroth, Professor of Sociology, Westminster College, Santa Barbara, California
Karen Hoyt, Executive Director, Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Berkeley, California
Dr. Gordon Lewis, Professor of Sytematic Theology, Denver Seminary, Denver, Colorado
Brian Onken, Senior Research Consultant, Christian Research Institute, El Toro, California
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 1985