An expert on religious studies yesterday said that the Central Christian Church here was not a cult because its practices were "neither strange, unnatural or harmful."
Dr. J. Gordon Melton, 54, the director of the California-based Institute of the Study of American Religion, added that the church conducted its activities openly and informed prospective members of the commitments that were expected of them. He was giving evidence to support the church, which is suing the editors of The New Paper, Lianhe Wanbao and the Christian magazine, Impact, for calling it "a cult."
He said that while the church required a high level of commitment from its members, it was not true that it practised manipulative and mind-control methods. "In fact, members join and leave the church of their own volition," he said. "No inducement or undue pressure is placed on any person to joing or remain in the church." He said that while its members believed that true salvation was found within the church, they were "unprepared to limit this concept to apply to themselves only."
Lawyers for the editors, however, disagreed with Dr. Melton's evidence because it is their case that he has often spoken favorably of controversial groups. For example, lawyer Daniel John pointed out that while the witness had conducted research on "cult" groups such as the Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Children of God, he did not call any of them cults.
Dr. Melton also agreed with counsel's suggestion that he had never labelled any group a cult when giving evidence on related matters in courts in the U.S. and Britain. He said he objected to the use of the world "cult" on any group because it conveyed a negative and derogatory meaning.
Noting that Dr. Melton had conducted his research on the Central Christian Church by joining its activities here, Mr. John asked whther he agreed that such a "participant observer approach" had drawbacks as church leaders and members would invariably be on their best behavior, knowing that he was around.
The witness, who had described the church's services as "simple" as they centered on prayers, singing and preaching, disagreed with counsel. He said it was hard for any group to hide all its negative points, if they existed. He added that he had not based his finding solely on his observations here, but had done his "homework."
He also disagreed with counsel that ex-members went through severe depression when they left the church as a result of the church's extreme teachings. Such "stress," he said, was due to the ex-members' own psychological and emotional make-up and was similar to that felt by couples who went through divorce.
Mr. Daniel Eng, a founder and former leader of the church, had testified last week that the church used the "guilt" of its members to make them submit to the leaders.
Dr. Melton said there would be some degree of guilt if one was confronted with one's shortcomings with God. But he had not seen any inordinate amount of guilt used on church members, he added.
The expert for the defense, the Rev. Adrian van Leen, is expected to give his evidence today.