Libel Suit against The Mind Benders
by Jack Sparks

In 1980 local churches in California, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas and several individuals filed suits against Thomas Nelson, Inc., Jack N. Sparks, Jon Edward Braun, Joseph Richard Ballew, Peter Gillquist, et al over the publication of The Mindbenders: A Look at Current Cults by Jack Sparks. These suits were later consolidated into a single litigation, which was resolved when Thomas Nelson, Inc., published a retraction in major newspapers throughout the United States.

Background

For a general background of the events leading up to the writing of The Mindbenders, see “The Christian World Liberation Front, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, and the church in Berkeley.”

According to a report in Christianity Today, Jack Sparks left the Christian World Liberation Front in 1975 after complaints that his leadership was becoming too authoritarian1. He then joined several other former Campus Crusade leaders, including Jon Braun and Peter Gillquist, who in 1973 had formed the New Covenant Apostolic Order (NCAO). These men, including Sparks, claimed apostolic succession and authority. In February 1979 the NCAO and its associated churches became the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC). Not surprisingly the founders ordained one another as its bishops. That spring the EOC came under sharp criticism from the Spiritual Counterfeits Project for excessive control over the lives of its members2.

EOC Bishops

The EOC called for a return of the church to the teaching of the church fathers and the historic Christian creeds, eventually including a return to icons3, the use of incense4, and the veneration of Mary5. The EOC leaders sought to attract the younger generation to their “recovered” church and realized that Witness Lee and the local churches with their emphasis on the Bible as the unique measure of Christian life and practice were a major obstacle to their ambitions. Having earlier seen young people leave groups of which they had been leaders to meet with the local churches, Sparks and the other bishops made a collective decision to “declare war” on the local churches and the ministry of Witness Lee. When Peter Gillquist, EOC’s presiding bishop, got a job with Thomas Nelson, Inc., as an acquisitions editor, the second book Gillquist proposed to Thomas Nelson was The Mindbenders. According to Sparks, the local churches were included in the book at Gillquist’s insistence.

The Mindbenders claimed to refute the “most dangerous cults.” It falsely accused the local churches of practicing brainwashing and said “the brainwashing, or mindbending, of the Local Church is, I believe, the most powerful and lasting of any cult on the contemporary scene” (p. 226). It claimed the local churches used fear to keep members and called Witness Lee “the autonomous dictator of this world-wide religious cult” (p. 221). It said the local churches suppress individuality, making group identity and acceptance all-important, and that many who had been involved with the local churches had been emotionally devastated and that their minds no longer function normally. Interestingly, many of these same charges were made against the EOC in the SCP/Bill Counts article previously mentioned, and one of the false accusations made in Sparks’ book–that the local churches intended to steal members from other Christian groups–was actually a reflection of EOC’s own stated intentions.

The Mindbenders was a case study in the abusive practice of using quotes out of context. One classic example was the following page:

They cease being able to relate normally either amongst themselves or those outside their “church” in the everyday relationships of life, such as husband-wife, parent-child, and employer-employee. Indeed, Lee encourages abnormality in such relationships:

Have you seen God, Christ, the Church, and the Churches? The sisters must forget about their husbands, and the brothers must forget about their wives. We must forget about our preoccupations and see God, Christ, the Church, and the churches. Hallelujah!

The Mindbenders, p. 238; the passage quoted is from The Stream, Vol. 7, No. 4, Nov. 1, 1969, p. 11.

Read in its full context Witness Lee’s statement has nothing to do with neglecting human relationships. The point he was making was that although the Bible addresses many subjects, as a whole it reveals that God intends to have the church as the Body of Christ expressed in many churches. Thus, the main figures in the Bible are God, Christ, the church, and the churches. However, when we as Christians read the Bible, because we are preoccupied with our personal interests such as our relationships with our husband or wives we tend to focus on the verses that tell us to love our wives or submit to our husbands. In doing so, we may miss the central message of the Bible. For that reason, he urged his listeners to forget about their own preoccupations when they come to God’s word and to seek to see what God reveals there of His ultimate goal and purpose.

Some of the Nelson staff and their outside reviewers who read The Mindbenders before its release, recognizing its bias and lack of substantive supporting research, recommended that it be dropped. One staff member, Craig Lampe (later International Director of the World Bible Society), was familiar with the writings of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee and strongly protested the book’s inaccuracies. He also testified that The Mindbenders was fraught with false accusations against the local churches. Members of the local churches wrote nearly 300 letters to the publisher and author, protesting their inclusion in the book and its distortion of their beliefs and practices. All appeals were ignored. After the Jonestown tragedy in 1978, a second edition of The Mindbenders was printed with a chapter on Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple immediately following the chapter on “The Local Church of Witness Lee.” The libel litigation actions were initiated by the local churches and its members only after further attempts to seek corrective action were rejected and after a thorough consideration of the propriety of filing a lawsuit against fellow believers was made.6

The Lawsuit and Its Result

In the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition and losses, libel litigation was initiated against Thomas Nelson and the EOC bishops most directly involved in the production of The Mindbenders. This litigation lasted from June 1981 to April 1983, at which time Thomas Nelson, Jack Sparks, Jon Braun and Peter Gillquist signed a settlement agreement that included the publication of a retraction in 18 major newspapers across the country. As time permits, we will post more information from the documents produced and the deposition testimony taken during the discovery process of this litigation so that the Christian public can understand the facts of this case from the defendants’ own words.


Notes:

1“Whatever Happened To the Jesus Movement,” by Edward E. Plowman, Christianity Today, October 24, 1975, pp. 46-48.

2“The Evangelical Orthodox Church and the New Covenant Apostolic Order,” by Bill Counts, Spiritual Counterfeits Project, spring 1979, reported on in “Evangelical Orthodox Church vs. Spiritual Counterfeits: New Denomination Debates Critic over Authority,” by Ronald M. Enroth, Christianity Today, August 7, 1981, pp. 33-34.

3See “No Graven Image,” by Fr. Jack N. Sparks, Ph.D.

4See “The Evangelical Orthodox Church: Questions & Answers“. Many other Web sites can be found using the search term “incense” with “Evangelical Orthodox Church” or “Gillquist”.

5According to “Our Blessed Mother and Blessed Bread,” published on the Web site St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, a former EOC congregation in Isla Vista, CA, that along with the rest of the EOC joined the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America:

… Raising their eyes, they beheld, standing in the air, the Theotokos, who was accompanied by a multitude of angels. She said to the Apostles, “Rejoice, for I am with you all the days of your lives!” Upon seeing her, they were filled with joy and cried aloud, “Most Holy Mother of God, save us!”

It is from this event that the Church derives a custom of offering up bread at the remembrance of “our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary” during the Divine Liturgy. While the hymn to the Theotokos is chanted, the priest receives the baskets of bread, saying, “Great is the name of the Holy Trinity!” He then elevates the baskets, making with them the sign of the Cross and saying, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”…

See also “Facing Up to Mary,” by Fr. Peter E. Gillquist.

6For a discussion of this issue, see “Is Our Appeal to the Courts in Accordance with Scripture”