Back in the early 1990s, hardly anyone outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area had heard of Ole (pronounced “OH-lee”) Anthony or the Trinity Foundation. The organization and its leader suddenly burst on the national consciousness by providing the ABC-TV network’s Primetime Live show with evidence that eventually brought down the ministry of televangelist Robert Tilton.
Any biblically-conscious, spiritually-discerning Christian who had ever watched Tilton’s maniacal pursuit of money in the name of Jesus realized that a major religious shyster had been given his comeuppance. He’d been living an incredibly lavish lifestyle, taking money from people who could ill-afford to part with it under the pretense that if they “sowed” their “seeds of faith” God would repay them many fold. And just in case you doubted whether God would make good, Tilton would regularly burst out in ecstatic tongues right on camera so that you could see that he was obviously filled with the Spirit.
Tilton was the head of an expanding empire that eventually fell to a small band of somewhat eccentric followers of a slightly-more-than-eccentric leader—to a bunch of nobodies who had crawled through garbage dumpsters to get the goods on him.
They lived communally. They spent much of their time in Bible studies and listening to their leader’s sermons, but when they weren’t doing that, they were demolishing multi-million-dollar spiritual scam artists. Anthony and his followers soon found themselves elevated to folk-hero status among those involved in evangelical counter-cult ministry. His newfound fame seemed well-deserved.
Eventually Michael Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties and the well-known Christian satire magazine, The Wittenburg Door, decided that the latter would be better off if it were published by Anthony and his gang. He sold the publication to the Trinity Foundation for $1.
Anthony now took control of an evangelical icon. He had hit the big time. He was part of the “in crowd.”
But what did we really know about him? As it turns out, not much, actually.
He certainly had a strong, if off-beat charisma. On the other hand, when he visited the national conference of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR) after achieving national stardom, some people there thought he came off as a little arrogant, and perhaps more than a tad condescending and judgmental.
But then, who wouldn’t be arrogant with the kind of background Anthony claimed to have? A former heroine junkie and car thief who became a top-secret, clandestine operative for the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. Proficient in several foreign languages. Witness to, and near-victim of a nuclear bomb test. A recipient of two presidential citations. An alumnus of the University of Arizona, Southern Methodist, and Harvard. That’s pretty heady stuff. And to think he gave it all up to follow Jesus!
Except that it now appears that none of that stuff ever happened; at least not in any way that closely resembles the way Ole told it. (See the August 3, 2006 Dallas Observer article, “The Man and the Myth,” by Glenna Whitley.)
That’s about how long Ole & Co. were both media darlings and heroes for those who spend much of their time battling cults and religious charlatans. Fifteen years, give or take. If we knew as much about him then as we know now, we probably wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about him. And yet, when the reality began to bubble to the surface, there were those among us who would rather kill the messenger than deal with the message.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old proverb that is usually reserved for the area of foreign policy. The history of international diplomacy is filled with strange-bedfellow alliances of nations whose leaders would not normally cross a street to shake each other’s hand, but have on occasion even pledged their children in matrimony to each other, or entered into non-aggression pacts and the like (think Hitler and Stalin). But even those nations who sacrifice principle for political expediency do not tend to do so at the expense of political discernment. They know with whom they are dealing, most of the time, at least (Neville Chamberlain’s lack of discernment about Hitler being a notable exception that proves the general rule). If only that were always the case with evangelical Christians.
Legend has it that in a discussion in 1939 about the ruthless Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García (father of that other ruthless Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who found himself on the wrong end of a bazooka while exiled in Paraguay in 1980), Franklin D. Roosevelt said (if I may paraphrase slightly), “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.!” because, of course, he was anti-Communist.
If someone is strongly opposed to the same things we are strongly opposed to, it can create an instant bond that bypasses reason and critical thinking. This can even happen with those of us involved in ministries that are devoted to promoting discernment among Christians. And if the Christians in question do not take the time to really get to know others with whom they have bonded over a common opposition, it can even go on for, say, fifteen years, give or take.
The lid blows off
In 2006 Wendy J. Duncan published her book, I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, about the years she spent in the Trinity Foundation. It is a searing account of spiritual manipulation, bizarre practices, and doctrinal aberrations, and it caught the evangelical counter-cult community off-guard.
How are we to respond to allegations that someone we thought was a member of our team is actually playing for the opposing side? For the most part there was no response. To Wendy Duncan and her husband Doug (who had also been a member of the Trinity Foundation), it initially seemed that the book was greeted with a resounding silence from the Christian counter-cult community. But I can tell you how some people involved in counter-cult ministry eventually responded: they called on Ole and his followers to get “the real story.” They didn’t call Wendy or Doug. Nor did they call people who could vouch for Wendy Duncan or her husband.
Messages were soon being passed on an apologetics discussion list to which I subscribe to the effect that Mr. and Mrs. Duncan were unstable individuals who were not to be trusted. Those passing these messages had nothing but the word of Wendy’s enemies to back up their statements. I responded to one such message on August 4, 2006, as follows:
…in my opinion, until someone does some genuine investigative writing on the charges that are now being published, it’s too early to form a real conclusion, and we are morally obligated to consider the allegations an open issue. I know how difficult and time-consuming real investigative reporting is, but I firmly believe that our integrity flies right out the window if we cut our favorite people all kinds slack while tightening nooses around the necks of our adversaries.
I realized, however, that investigating a religious group in another part of the country would be a tall order. I figured the truth would have to come out over time, as events played out. After all, who has the time or finances to devote to a little commune in Dallas? Christian counter-cult ministries aren’t exactly bursting with such resources. Fortunately, however, others are.
Little did I know that the day before I emailed those comments, the Dallas Observer had published an investigative piece on Ole Anthony by Glenna Whitley, the main article coming out on August 3 titled “The Cult of Ole.” (Ms. Whitley produced a follow-up article on November 22, 2007 titled “Turning the Tables on Trinity Foundation.”) In my opinion the information in these articles is even more devastating that what Mrs. Duncan wrote.
Among the most damaging allegations to surface were to the effect that Anthony and his followers may have been less than successful in keeping the second greatest commandment, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, as it built its case against Tilton for Primetime Live.
Ultimately Tilton would win all the lawsuits filed by his “victims.” Sad stories, yes, but not actionable in court. Despite federal agents crawling all over his operations, Tilton was never charged with a crime. Few media outlets that carried stories about Tilton reported anything when the investigations were dropped.
And few covered what would be revealed about Primetime Live in the next few years. Reams of documents released in discovery, raw ABC footage and depositions would show that producers had edited interviews out of context, distorted facts and omitted information favorable to Tilton. …
Holloway [a former member of the Trinity Foundation] was stunned to discover that Anthony and the producers had mixed the trash from various dumpsters. “It was on videotape,” says Holloway, “Ole and the producers literally playing with the evidence on B-roll.” That made Holloway—who’d testified repeatedly about the accuracy of their evidence log—a potential perjurer.
It’s understandable that the secular media would not want to give positive publicity to a spiritual snake oil salesman, and by this time Ole himself had found a comfortable spot for himself as a public religious commentator of sorts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Anthony had become a voice for the masses who were fed up with watching religious hucksters raiding little old ladies’ piggy banks (not to mention their retirement funds), and it was not going to be easy to tarnish his image as an edgy-but-trustworthy spokesman for their disgust. And why not? The guy is handsome, charming, and he “tells it like it is!” Right?
But what if the cure is worse than the disease, and the doctor is as sick as (or sicker than) the patient? And if the fruit is bad, what does that say about the root? Didn’t Jesus say something about how it is a key indicator of some major problems with the tree that produced it?
In the field of counter-cult apologetics, we tend to emphasize doctrinal issues over practical concerns, and it is often a good idea to keep those two things separate in order to avoid useless controversies over peripheral issues. But questionable practices are frequently symptoms of false doctrines. If a church practices a morbidly-introspective form of penitential confession, there is a good chance that it has a false doctrine of salvation, or at least the assurance of salvation. If a group requires complete uniformity on every jot and tittle of teaching among all its members under pain of excommunication, then at the very least it has a defective doctrine of the church.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and for cults and other spiritually-tyrannical groups the flame that always burns at their cores is ultimately a false view of Scripture itself. They place either their interpretations of the Bible or their extra-biblical teachings above the Bible or on a par with it. Begin peeling away the layers of their creeds and rhetoric and it shouldn’t take long to find something that sabotages the authority of God’s word. The only question concerning the Trinity Foundation since 2006 has been how long it would take for its core to be exposed.
The other shoe drops
Since 2006, events have continued to play out with the Trinity Foundation. A March 23, 2008 Wittenburg Door article by John Bloom, a close associate of Ole Anthony’s, demonstrates just how far from biblical orthodoxy Anthony & Co. have strayed. The article, titled, “Putting Women in Their Place,” begins with the subject of Hebrew professor Sheri Klouda’s lawsuit against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In the following paragraphs I will essentially repeat, with some modifications, comments I left on the web page for Bloom’s article—comments to which Bloom has not replied.
The essential significance of the case of Sheri Klouda would have been much better served if Bloom would have confined himself to the ethical issues involved, because if Klouda’s side of the story is correct, then we should all have serious concerns about how she was treated by the seminary. But by venturing into hotly-contested areas of biblical studies with comments that demonstrate both woefully-inadequate scholarship and reckless disregard for the canon of Scripture, Bloom has diverted attention away from a proper concern for ethics in evangelical institutions of higher education and onto his own—and by extension his editor’s and publisher’s—questionable commitment to both biblical authority and historical honesty. This is because in his article, Bloom takes a dangerous step beyond directly disputing the traditional understanding of the Apostle Paul’s teaching regarding the role of women in the church.
Now there are two ways you can challenge the traditional Christian understanding of this subject. One way is to challenge the interpretation that has been traditionally held. The other way is to challenge the authority of the text of Scripture itself. The first way can at least potentially be done in a way that preserves its proponent’s Christian orthodoxy. The latter way cannot. Unfortunately, Bloom has chosen the latter route.
Regarding 1 Timothy, Bloom wrote:
This is not the voice of God, as in Leviticus. This is the voice of a man called ‘Paul’ by the writer, but we don’t really know who it is. Scholars are 100 percent agreed—even the male scholars—that it’s not Paul who wrote this, because the letter has been dated no earlier than the year 120. Therefore, even though it’s written to Timothy, it can’t be the same Timothy who traveled with Paul, for he, too, is dead by 120.
Anyone who has seriously studied the issue of the date and authorship of 1 Timothy knows this to be a false statement. Scholars have never been 100 percent agreed that Paul did not write it. (As someone with an M.A. in Biblical Studies I scratch my head and ask: “When are biblical scholars ever 100 percent agreed on anything?” Bloom’s statement is positively absurd!) In fact, it has only been relatively-recent (in the context of church history) liberal scholarship that has contested that Paul wrote any of the epistles that bear his name, in keeping with its low view of Scripture. In his monumental New Testament Introduction, Donald Guthrie not only defended the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, but cited numerous scholarly heavyweights from recent generations who also defended it (viz., Wohlenberg, Lock, Meinertz, Thörnell, Schlatter, Spicq, Jeremias, and Simpson, of whom Schlatter, Jeremias, and to some extent Spicq are perhaps the most well known to the American scholarly community). I don’t usually recommend Wikipedia as an authoritative resource (although I do recommend it as a place to start looking for links to authoritative sources), but all Bloom needed to do in order to see the ridiculous nature of his position on this point was to consult its article on 1 Timothy, adding laziness as a researcher to the charges of theological callousness.
Bloom then wrote:
In the first collection of Paul’s letters, in the year 200, these so-called ‘pastoral epistles’ (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus) are nowhere to be found, and their relevance, not to mention their authenticity, is still being debated throughout the 3rd century.
It is these comments that most significantly call into question Bloom’s integrity as a researcher and writer, as well as his honesty as a journalist. If there was any debate about the authenticity of any of the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, in the early church, knowledge of this debate has apparently eluded every biblical scholar on the planet except for the privy counsel of John Bloom. In his New International Greek Testament Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles, George W. Knight III writes, “The P[astoral] E[pistles] were known and regarded as Pauline in the early church” (page 13). In fact, as Knight points out, the only people known to reject the Pastorals were “the heretics Marcion, Basilides, and Tatian” (ibid.).
Bloom also stupendously fails to inform his readers that “first collection of Paul’s letters,” which seems to be a reference to the Chester Beatty papyrus codex of Paul’s epistles, is missing seven leaves which most believe were sufficient to accommodate the Pastoral Epistles. Others speculate that since the codex is also missing Philemon that it was intended as a collection of epistles that Paul wrote to churches rather than individuals. In either case, Bloom has blatantly misrepresented the facts.
Bloom further wrote:
Thirty-six percent of the words in them appear nowhere else in the letters of Paul, and more than half of those words appear nowhere else in the New Testament. (For example, this is the only place you find eusebeia, the Greek and Roman word for “proper religious behavior” toward the gods, instead of what Paul would have undoubtedly used—faith.) So this letter is obviously written for a particular purpose, and it’s intended to preclude women from teaching the Bible in a particular situation, and later on—at least two centuries later—it’s finally approved by the church fathers as scripture.
It seems that in his exhaustive search for evidence against the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, Bloom overlooked the fact that 2 Peter uses the word eusebeia three times (2 Peter 1:6-7; 3:11). But then again, if his view of 2 Peter is also in accord with that of radical liberal scholarship, as is the case with his view of the Pastorals, then perhaps he doesn’t consider 2 Peter part of the New Testament, since liberals have traditionally reject the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter.
In making his bold assertions about the distinct vocabulary employed in 1 Timothy, Bloom is apparently unaware of the fact that this particular brand of linguistic scholarship—counting the number of unique words in a document and basing decisions about authorship upon that information—has fallen into disrepute in recent years, not only in biblical studies, but in literary criticism in general. Some time ago one researcher subjected Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a computer analysis of its vocabulary and style and concluded that it was the product of 16 different authors! It is understandably difficult for real scholars to take this kind of stuff seriously. Nevertheless, Christians in the academy have been forced to deal with these kinds of challenges, and they have met them repeatedly over 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and other works in the New Testament canon. The responses by Guthrie (pages 616-617; 1970 edition), and Knight (pages 38-45) are excellent examples. As Guthrie has noted, differences in vocabulary between Pastorals and the rest of Paul’s epistles would have been even more obvious to the original Greek-speaking readers of the New Testament than they are to us today, and yet we have no record of any ancient reader even noticing them, let alone citing them as a basis for rejecting their authenticity. Why not?
A call to repentance
John Bloom has sinned against Christ and His church by denying the authority of God’s word. It has been the uniform consensus throughout the history of orthodox Christianity that the Pastoral Epistles are part of Scripture. In seeking to establish the authority of his own teaching, Bloom has denied the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking through His word. Ole Anthony has sinned against Christ and His church by publishing this denial with his own editorial approval.
I personally do not see how Christians who know them or communicate with them can do anything but call them into account for these sins and call them to repentance. Until such repentance occurs, I don’t see how any fellowship with the Trinity Foundation, John Bloom, or Ole Anthony, is possible for an obedient follower of Christ.
And once they repent of this sin, they need to deal biblically with the charges that have been brought against them by Wendy Duncan and the Dallas Observer.