Friday, January 9, 2015

A New Hope

Over the last several years, David Jang’s community has offered a variety of explanations for the concerns that have been raised about the community’s teachings. These explanations have generally involved increasingly creative ad hominem attacks – just suing folks was getting boring, I guess – and have tended to move from, “Nobody ever taught that Jang was a second Christ and anyone who says so is a liar,” towards, “Well, it sort of happened, but it was only a few folks out on the fringes.” As more and more documents have accumulated, however, even that latter claim has become increasingly implausible. As I wrote elsewhere:

The evidence I’ve laid out in my last three posts indicates more-or-less conclusively that the belief was present from the lowest to the highest members of the group, was spread across at least four continents [ed: now six], and continued for many years. Several people have told me that every member of their particular local branches believed Jang to be the Christ, and this in an organization which emphasized communication and control… Quite a number of folks have told me that they had sent David Jang letters or emails in which they laid out their belief in him as the Christ. All this taken together makes it hard to believe that this teaching was was happening entirely without Jang’s connivance.

Given this background, a debate taking place in the comments section of another recent post has been enlightening, as it introduced a new swirl of explanations, at least one of which I had not previously heard. In this debate, an anonymous member of Jang’s community with the handle of “Guestememo” was challenging, well, pretty much anything I’d ever written or done, ranging from my tenure at Zango (he thought it reflected poorly on my ethics), to my church attendance (he suspected it was spotty). He appeared to know a great deal about Jang’s background, including details of his involvement in the Unification Church, along with the names and identities of obscure Korean associates I’d never heard of. I’ve also heard from several ex-members that this sort of public defense never happens without Jang’s authorization, so my assumption is that Guestememo was in all likelihood writing with Jang’s approval, perhaps even with Jang’s active participation.

When I asked him to comment on the quite substantial evidence showing that the problematic teachings had been common throughout the community, he responded with this post:

Ken, it is productive that you asked. I think we are going toward the end of this long debate.

It’s very important to understand these 2 points:

In Jesus’ teaching in John 21, he says, “Feed my lambs,” which talks about Peter taking the role of Jesus Christ in shepherding His (Jesus’) sheep. It’s not about Christology (not that Peter himself is becoming a savior) - but rather about roles. The Christ refers to the Savior who saves us from the sin. But the Christ you are referencing in the messages is similarly talking about a role or a place - it's not about salvation (soteriology) or Christology. This is interpreted using a typological approach in hermeneutics. Another example of this is in Ephesians 5, where it is written that husband and wife are to be like Christ and the church. The husband is in the role of Christ for the family - serving and sacrificing. This does not mean that the husband saves the wife from sin. For us, salvation is complete through Jesus Christ and no other Christ is needed. Therefore, this is not about Christology or soteriology at all - but rather, it is about a ROLE one holds.

These particular lectures are very contextual. When we answer to those who have questions on eschatology, there are 2 ways to interpret the Bible: in a literal way or a spiritual way. For those who do not take things literally, eschatology can be very confusing. These lectures were designed in order to protect these types of confused people - especially in the Asian context where there are many gods and cults. Frankly, protecting these people is a very big challenge in many regions and many people have lost their Christian faith, having it replaced with cult beliefs. Conclusively, these contextual messages were only used in these special contexts.

Broadly speaking, these lectures were very limited and were given in a special situation. Even so, these could cause confusion if people do not understand them properly so teaching these messages was discouraged and these were never accepted at the church as a whole, and were certainly never part of any official doctrine adopted by the church.

About things like “time, times, and half a time”, there’s no one who actually believes in dispensationalism in the church; you can check among the accusers and will see that no one actually believes in it. Why were these messages only taught around the perimeter? In these fierce situations, among cult groups and extreme liberal groups attacking many people with their own dispensationalism, a few missionaries had to actually create their own dispensationalism to counter theirs. These views were never part of any core doctrine. That’s the context in which this happened. We don’t hold a dispensational view. This was not official doctrine and was not accepted from the denomination, but only given to face the challenges from cults and to prevent people from falling into them. So I hope you do not misunderstand these lectures.
Some lecturers believed these were the best hermeneutical methods available against cults and extreme liberals. These were never used to say that he is the savior - the messages were taught very differently from that perspective.

This was all already cleared more than 10 years ago. Moreover, this all took place in parachurch small groups before the church was actually formed. It’s not something that people accepted as a whole from my understanding.

The basic church doctrine is very healthy and orthodox.

I don’t care whether you believe this or not, but you can just check and see.
As far as I know, Borah was actually a very good Bible teacher. And she was a great testifier of the Gospel who said Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation in her confession. ( — "I could never teach a Bible study with this intent because I have never believed nor confessed that David Jang is the 'Second Coming Christ.'"

Lin responded to Edmond, saying, "Like many other evangelicals, I affirm the Second Advent is the literal and personal return of Jesus Christ," she said. Lin also cited a verse in the Book of Acts stating, "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.")
I want to conclude this with this verse that came to my heart:

Romans 14:1-22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

I feel like our debate is just like this passage.

So that’s interesting.

The first thing worth noting is that everything Guestememo says presumes that the various documents and testimonies that have come to light over the last several years are genuine, and not the forgeries or lies that Jang’s community had originally claimed they were. To be sure, there wasn’t much question about this, but I suppose that admitting as much counts as progress.

The second thing is that Guestememo is doing a lot of hand-waving here, tossing around theological jargon like a first-year seminarian. But even after I’ve read the post repeatedly, I can’t quite figure out how introducing concepts like “typology”, “eschatology”, “dispensationalism” and so forth advances his argument, or really even makes any sense. I saw some of Jang’s academic transcripts recently, in which he shows himself to be a solid “B” student; I’d probably give this effort a C+.

Beyond that, Guestememo makes several points, which I think can be fairly summarized as follows:

  1. When folks in these lessons referred to Jang as “Christ”, they were referring to Jang’s role, not to his identity.
  2. These teachings were necessary to help folks who might otherwise be attracted to cults.
  3. It only happened on the outskirts, in very specific situations.
  4. All this happened more than 10 years ago.
  5. Now that this has been explained, the debate can end and we can all be friends.

I’ll try to respond to these points individually.

It Was About Jang’s Role

I suppose I could get behind the idea that the official lessons which describe Jang as Christ were referring only to his role rather than to his identity. This probably was the way that folks like Borah conceived of him: at least, there’s no hint in the written or audio lessons that they thought of Jang in Chalcedonian terms, as God incarnate. Some chats and documents refer to him as “King”. One member told me recently that “everyone considered him to be superhuman,” and that sounds pretty typical. On the other hand, some went quite a bit further. One document clearly speaks of Jang in soteriological terms, making repeated reference to the “sacrifice” of “Christ David”. Another calls him “Lord”, the earliest Christian confession. Other former members have said that they would pray in Jang’s name, or even thought of him as God.

However, even putting those stronger claims aside, I don’t know that it really helps Guestememo’s case to draw this distinction between role and identity. If you’re a Christian, and you’re teaching that somebody besides Jesus of Nazareth is playing the role of “the Christ”, something has gone badly wrong. Period. You can try to draw all the distinctions you want and trot out whatever technical theological language you think might impress or confuse folks, but if your community can produce or even tolerate that teaching for more than two seconds, it’s clearly gone off the rails. And if you don’t think that’s so - well, that’s pretty telling too.

It Was Combating Heresy

The idea that these lessons were necessary to combat heresy is just nuts, straight up. I’d be more polite if I could, but I can’t quite bring myself around: this isn’t the sort of explanation that calls for politeness. If you read through the numerous documents that have been made public, there’s no hint that this was their purpose. Nor does the claim make sense on its face, since it boils down to saying that they needed to teach heresy to fight heretics. Despite the fact that they keep offering it, this is perhaps their least persuasive in a long line of implausible explanations.

It Was on the Fringes

I’ve said before that it’s hard to say just what percentage of Jang’s community believed that he was a second Christ. It was certainly less than universal - when someone hadn’t made the confession, folks would whisper, “He doesn’t know about Pastor David”. But neither was it just a few missionaries on the outskirts. It probably did make a difference where you were: one former US member estimated that perhaps only a third of the community believed it, while Chinese members have insisted to me that everyone in their local community had made the confession. Even one of the folks who supposedly “didn’t know about Pastor David” told me that he had, in fact, been taught this - he just didn’t buy it. I’ve talked to a lot of former members over the years, and I can’t recall anyone who joined before 2006 who hadn’t at least encountered this teaching. What is beyond any serious dispute is that it was taught on every continent (except Antarctica), for many years, and by folks from the lowest to the highest levels of the organization.

It’s Ancient History

I believe I was the first of Jang’s critics to acknowledge that he had called a halt to the teaching of the history lessons in 2006, nine years ago. (So it wasn’t really “more than 10 years ago”, but I won’t squabble over the details.) That said, I’ve had two people tell me that at least some current members have acknowledged that they still believe Jang to be the Christ. I suspect that this is an increasingly marginal position in the community at large, but it doesn’t yet seem to be extinct. And I have no idea what Jang’s inner circle continues to think.

The bigger problem is the community’s ongoing ethical failings, which are quite certainly not ancient history, and which go well beyond their continued denials and dissimulation about the second Christ teaching. Ben Dooley has documented repeated violations of US labor and immigration law. Lots of people have told me that members were encouraged to lie to family, in the hopes of getting money out of them. The group has continued to lie, well beyond the point where it has any point, about the nature of the community’s interrelationships. (Does anybody really doubt anymore that Jang controls the Christian Post, or that the IBTimes leadership takes orders from him?) Former members who speak out continue to be bullied and threatened. Most eye-opening, OSHA issued a $2.35MM fine to Olivet last April for repeatedly and willfully exposing its students and other workers to lead and asbestos. I could go on. This is not a community that Christians should trust.

Let’s Be Friends

As for whether we can all be friends now - well, there was a point in time when I hoped that Jang’s community would choose the path of honesty and repentance. I was confident that if they did, they would be greeted with reconciliation and rewarded with fellowship. I’m probably one of Jang’s most dogged critics, but I would have welcomed them with open arms had they decided to come clean and engage the world honestly. I still would. But I see little sign that this is afoot.

I appreciate the attention that Jang and his inner circle are paying to my criticisms, but in the end, it’s not my judgment that they need to worry about.

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