March 19, 2004
Those who have followed the progress of the current libel litigation between Living Stream Ministry (LSM), the Local Church et al and Harvest House Publishers (HH) et al are aware that the issues involved go far beyond the parties in this case and raise issues concerning the integrity of Christian publishing and perhaps even its future.
On Friday, March 12, 2004, after a two-year silence, Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon issued a Corporate Statement regarding the most recent developments in this litigation (see http://www.harvesthousepublishers.com/). What seems to have prompted their Statement was the March 9 decision in the 80th Texas District Court, denying their latest motion to have the case dismissed through Summary Judgment. Though this ruling was clearly a victory for LSM and the local churches, we chose not to issue a statement or media release about it. However, as with the book itself, the HH statement forces us to clarify and correct their significant — and perhaps strategic — mischaracterizations and misrepresentations about our ministry and the nature of this defamation suit.
Generally speaking, this legal dispute has been characterized by two years of delaying tactics on the part of HH and the authors in which they have lost motion after motion concerning the merits of the case. The substance of the most recent ruling contradicts the claims put forth by the HH Corporate Statement. In the simplest terms, the ruling by the judge was the fourth major defeat to HH’s legal efforts to deny our right to bring the truth concerning this matter to light.
What follows is a brief summary of our response to the main points raised in the Corporate Statement of March 12, 2004. Where appropriate, we have provided footnotes with links to copies of the documents at http://web.archive.org/web/20080703223706/http://www.localchurch-vs-harvesthouse.com/ [Note: This site has been discontinued. The same information is available on this site at: http://www.contendingforthefaith.org/local-church-et-al-vs-harvest-house-et-a/]. A complete history and our overall perspective on the case can also be found at that website.
The following numbered points correspond to the five paragraphs of the HH Corporate Statement:
- “Not a ruling against Harvest House and the authors”? The recent ruling by Judge Kent Sullivan in the Houston court was in fact against them – and was not the first. The first ruling against HH was the dismissal of their original lawsuit filed in 2001 against the Local Church and Living Stream Ministry (LSM) in Oregon.1 It was their original lawsuit that thrust this issue into the courts. This is actually the third time that they have tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the Texas lawsuit.2 That the Court rejected their arguments is clear by the fact that they are appealing the Court’s decision and by the “disappointed” feeling expressed by Harvest House President Bob Hawkins. The repeated refusal of the Court to dismiss the case means that the law does not stand with their trivialization of, or their disassociation from, the charges. Now in their 3-12-04 Corporate Statement they are trying to reassert some of the arguments rejected by the Court.
- There are three important points in the second paragraph that need to be corrected:
- “[Not] accused.of criminal and immoral conduct”? The paragraph begins with a clear contradiction of the decision reached by the court in this ruling. Whether or not the defamatory language could be applied to the plaintiffs3 was the point at issue in their Summary Judgment motion. The Court has consistently rejected their claim that these statements could not apply to the plaintiffs by virtue of the way the book is worded and structured.
- A theological debate? The defendants continually attempt to divert attention from the real focus of the case by trying to portray it as a theological debate. In so doing, they have clearly misrepresented the nature and facts of the case, which has never been about theology. Rather, it is about language that is indisputably libelous because it falsely charges crimes and immoral behavior.4 Proper theological discussion with qualified people is welcomed by the Living Stream Ministry and the local churches.
- “A noteworthy fact”? Their “noteworthy fact.that The Local Church, in its suit, did not dispute the accuracy of the chapter in the book that comments about their beliefs” is simply not true. In fact, from the very beginning we have consistently taken issue with the book’s mischaracterization of our beliefs and practices and have corrected every single point of misrepresentation.5 In the earlier Harvest House lawsuit filed in Oregon, they clearly acknowledged our protest of the book’s misrepresentation of our beliefs.6
The later complaint by LSM and the Local Churches (paragraphs 7 and 9) takes issue with the book’s entire mischaracterization of them, including the chapter specifically on them,7 while recognizing that the courts are not the proper place for determining theological truth.
- How the book was written:
- “Well researched and accurate”? The facts that have come out in the case contradict this assertion. Author John Weldon admitted in correspondence that his research was 15-20 years old, that he may have made mistakes, and that he did not have time or space to do adequate research on the Local Church.8 Despite the fact that the plaintiffs were included in their encyclopedia of cults, the authors have written, “Theologically speaking, Witness Lee and the Local Church do not constitute a cult,”9 and, “The Local Church.is unique among the groups in this Encyclopedia. It is not a cult in the negative sense of the term, nor do the characteristics of cults in the Introduction generally apply to them.”10 Neither of these statements was included in the published editions of their book.
- “No intent to disparage or hurt”? In fact, the authors’ written instructions for the editing of this book were to use the most “damaging” and “damning” quotes and concentrate on the “demonization” of the leader and the followers in order to really “hit these guys hard.”11 These instructions were carried out in editing the book12, resulting in the language found in it.
- First Amendment Rights for ECPA? In this paragraph, HH inserts the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) into this issue as if they were protecting the First Amendment rights of ECPA members. While ECPA has taken no formal position concerning this lawsuit, the First Amendment rights (free exercise of religion) of at least one ECPA member have been significantly “chilled” by the publication of their book. The fact is that LSM — one of the plaintiffs in this suit — was admitted into ECPA after the suit was filed and after ECPA conducted its own theological investigation of LSM. It is irresponsible for HH and the authors to use the virtues of religious debate and freedom of expression as a basis to deprive the Local Church of those very freedoms.
That the Harvest House book suppresses religious freedom is not just the opinion of the plaintiffs. In “Can a Book Harm Religious Freedom?” author Mark Kellner expresses similar concerns (see, www.libertymagazine.org/article/articleview/423/1/2).
- “Responsible Publishing”? Under oath, HH personnel admitted that no one at HH had read the book prior to publishing it,13 that they took no steps to check the facts or vet the book in any way,14 and that there were no editorial standards in place to verify its accuracy.15 Also under oath, Bob Hawkins stated that he did not know whether or not the LC was a cult.16 Furthermore, authors Ankerberg and Weldon wrote that “theologically speaking, the Local Church of Witness Lee is not a cult” and that “the characteristics of cults” in this book do not apply to them.17 Considering such statements by the defendants the question remains why the Living Stream Ministry and the Local Church were included in a book about cults to which criminal and immoral conduct are ascribed. Evidence suggests that it may be related to author John Weldon’s association with the Spiritual Counterfeits Project and their loss of a previous libel lawsuit on similar issues in 1985.18
We hope that this response is helpful for you to understand the whole story and its complexities. The issues raised in this case go much further than the present lawsuit. They comment on the integrity, and may in fact affect the future, of Christian publishing and thus are worthy of serious study.
In 1996, evangelical publisher Zondervan, in launching its own campaign, stressing the importance of responsible publishing, stated, “Freedom of speech and publication must be balanced by a proper sense of responsibility. Good citizens know they’re accountable for their actions.. There are those, however, who tend to forget that they also are held accountable for their words. That is how laws against libel and slander are sustained.” (www.zondervan.com/desk/green.asp).
Documentation and references are available on each of these points at http://www.contendingforthefaith.org/local-church-et-al-vs-harvest-house-et-al/.
Living Stream Ministry
The Local Churches
PS. In addition to their Corporate Statement, Harvest House has posted a ten-page Question and Answer supplement that goes even further in misrepresenting and mischaracterizing various aspects of the case, as well as repeating their doctrinal misrepresentations concerning our beliefs. There are numerous documents and evidence in this case that also contradict their Q&A answers. These documents will also be available at http://web.archive.org/web/20080703223706/http://www.localchurch-vs-harvesthouse.com/ [http://www.contendingforthefaith.org/local-church-et-al-vs-harvest-house-et-al/].
1See “Judgment of Dismissal,” Harvest House Publishers v. The Church in Fullerton … a/k/a The Living Stream Ministry, The Local Churches, and the Co-Workers of Witness Lee, 03/15/2002.
- Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment
- Plaintiffs’ Sur-Reply to Defendants’ Memorandum Brief in Support of Defendants’ Amended Motion for Summary Judgment
- Plaintiffs’ Response to Defendants’ Second Motion for Summary Judgment
- Plaintiffs’ Sur-Reply to Defendants’ “Second” Motion for Summary Judgment
4See particularly paragraphs 16 and 18 on pages 7-9 of the Complaint that initiated the present litigation.
5Of particular note in this regard are the following documents, all of which were sent as a letter with attachments to Robert Hawkins, Jr., on November 20, 2001, copied to John Ankerberg and John Weldon:
In addition, interested parties are directed to Living Stream Ministry’s statement of faith.
6In the lawsuit filed in Oregon against The Church in Fullerton, Harvest House said, “…[LSM/Local Churches] listed the following reasons for believing Plaintiff’s [Harvest House’s] Work to be defamatory: …the Work misrepresents the beliefs, practices, purpose, and founders of the Local Churches…” and “the Work imputes to Defendant [LSM/Local Churches] moral and religious beliefs that it does not hold…” (pages 4 and 5).
7Plaintiffs’ Complaint, pages 6 and 9. Paragraph 7 on page 6 says, “The section of the Encyclopedia entitled ‘The Local Church’ grossly distorts Plaintiffs and takes out of context many statements in order to present a misleading and incorrect view of Plaintiffs[LSM/Local Church].”
11Exhibit 5, Deposition of John Weldon, September 24, 2003.
12Deposition of Rhonda Spence, p. 64.
- Deposition of Robert Hawkins, Jr., President of Harvest House, p. 142
- Deposition of Carolyn McCready, Vice President of Editorial at Harvest House, p. 58
- Deposition of LaRae Weikert, Editorial Managing Director at Harvest House, p. 200
- Deposition of Betty Fletcher, Managing Editor at Harvest House, p. 81
14Betty Fletcher, Managing Editor at Harvest House, testified in her deposition that “fact checking is the author’s responsibility” (p. 55). Harvest House’s lack of an editorial policy governing fact checking was confirmed by Editorial Managing Director LaRae Weikert on page 44 of her deposition. This practice is in direct contradiction to the “General Principles and Practices for ECPA Members,” which state, “As members of ECPA, we will seek to document all sources and validate all research.” Harvest House testimony to the effect that the book was not vetted includes page 234 of Bob Hawkins’ deposition and pages 172-173 of Betty Fletcher’s deposition.
16Deposition of Robert Hawkins, Jr., p. 193.
18As early as 1977 John Weldon was called a “close friend of the [Spiritual Counterfeits] Project” in the SCP Newsletter. His vita shows him sharing work with them from 1975 through 1985 (Page 2 of Exhibit 23, Deposition of John Weldon). Material relating to the SCP lawsuit was also given to Hawkins, Ankerberg, and Weldon with the November 20, 2001 letter and had been called to their attention as early as May of that year in separate letters to Hawkins, Ankerberg, and Weldon. It includes:
- The Statement of Decision in Lee v. Duddy, concerning the book The God-Men
- A background and summary of the Statement of Decision
- A copy of The Experts Speak
- A copy of Dr. J. Gordon Melton’s An Open Letter Concerning the Local Church, Witness Lee and The God-Men Controversy, published by the Institute for the Study of American Religion.