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NEWS STORY: Group sees occult practices infecting churches

c. 1998 Religion News Service ST. LOUIS _ Once Marcia Montenegro converted to Christianity in 1990, she gave up a successful career as a licensed astrologer. No more chart readings. No more workshops for civic groups, public school students or witchcraft devotees. It was all over. What disconcerts Montenegro now is meeting Bible-carrying Christians who […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

ST. LOUIS _ Once Marcia Montenegro converted to Christianity in 1990, she gave up a successful career as a licensed astrologer. No more chart readings. No more workshops for civic groups, public school students or witchcraft devotees. It was all over.

What disconcerts Montenegro now is meeting Bible-carrying Christians who dabble in the occult practices she left behind. These Christians call up a psychic or scan a horoscope, although, she said, God in the biblical book of Deuteronomy forbids star worship, fortunetelling and witchcraft.”I get more depressed about Christians doing this than I do about unbelievers doing it,”said Montenegro, an independent Baptist who directs Christian Answers for the New Age in Arlington, Va.”Christians have the Bible, and they have the Holy Spirit if they are really believers. And they should know better,”she said.”They should be more discerning. The level of discernment in churches is very appalling to me..” Montenegro spoke at workshops on astrology and the occult at the recent Saint Louis Conference on Biblical Discernment. The conference, held April 23-25 in a Southern Baptist church just outside St. Louis, was sponsored by Personal Freedom Outreach, an anti-cult ministry founded in 1975 with offices in St. Louis.

The national meeting on Christian apologetics is one of several conducted periodically around the country that focus on defending biblically-based Christian faith, said PFO board member M. Kurt Goedelman of St. Louis.

More than 250 people _ mostly theological conservatives _ attended the two-day conference. Those are large numbers for a conference where attendees review their perspective on basic biblical truths, Goedelman said.”There’s certainly not as much interest as we would like there to be,”he said.”Truth just does not draw a crowd …. You do a discernment conference, trying to exegete (interpret) properly the word of God, and it’s a great conference when you get 250 people.” Sessions at the apologetics conference ranged from discussions on the New Age movement, demonology, and the occult. Speakers also addressed what they termed as cultic and aberrational groups and faiths, including the International Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Mormonism.

Conference speakers repeatedly referred to the Bible during interviews and the sessions as the antidote to what they said is a mystical, superstitious edge creeping into biblically-based Christian life and practice.

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For instance, Montenegro said in an interview that occultic practice was present in quarters of the word-faith movement, which argues Christian faith can result in economic prosperity. The PFO listed the movement as”charismatic extremism.” Montenegro said that when a word-faith teacher tells someone not to acknowledge a headache so a headache will stop, that’s a New Age occultic technique.”Some parts of the word-faith movement (believe) that you can’t think or speak anything negative because it will attract something negative to you,”she said.”That is definitely from sorcery and witchcraft because it’s a principle in sorcery that like attracts like.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM)

In a plenary session, PFO board member G. Richard Fisher said,”The amazing thing is what used to be common in the world of the occult is now commonplace in Christianity.” New spiritual experiences are sought in a manner that mimics the faddishness of ancient Athens as depicted in Acts 17, when the Apostle Paul challenged Athenians’ superstitiousness and idol worship, he said.

These critics of alleged cults, however, were not without their critics. Religious studies professor Lonnie D. Kliever said that counter-cult groups have sown a lot of misinformation about new religious movements in general.”They see these movements as threats to the prevailing orthodox theology and institutional structure of the church,”said Kliever, chair of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.”They are very protective of a particular religious turf,”he said.”And they generally use whatever strategies that are necessary to combat those spiritualistic emphases within mainline religions and the existence of new religious movements with a more mystical or spiritualistic orientation in the wider society.” The counter-cult groups emerged 20 to 30 years ago in response to the counter-culture religious movements of the 1960s, Kliever said. Initially, the counter-cult groups challenged religious organizations such as the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas.

But they had such a strict definition of”dangerous”religious movements that they came to even consider the teachings of some mainstream faith groups heretical, he said.”They found themselves condemning Pentecostal groups, neo-Pentecostal groups, and fundamentalist groups _ within mainline religions,”Kliever said.

However, the dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., said he sees a growing hunger among Christians to gain skills to defend biblically-based Christian faith.”Our seminary exists for the explicit purpose of defending the faith and countering the cults,”said Norman L. Geisler, one of the PFO conference speakers.

Geisler, a co-founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary, said the institution started without money, support or property. Six years later, the seminary has 220 students, graduates scattered around the world, and leading apologists such as best-selling author Ravi Zacharias serve as visiting faculty.”The only reason we’re growing is because it’s a desperately needed niche in society,”Geisler said.”People are being inundated by the cults. They’re not able to defend their faith so they’re retreating. They’re not witnessing because they’re running into people asking questions and they can’t answer them.” DEA END HOWARD