Falun Gong, Destiny Church and the Exclusive Brethren are perhaps three of New Zealand’s most controversial religious group.
Last year, both the Destiny’s Church and the Exclusive Brethren made headlines in the New Zealand media, while news of Falun Gong practitioners made many appearances media outlets world-wide.
In November of last year, 700 followers of the Destiny Church movement pledged their allegiance to the church’s self proclaimed bishop Brian Tamaki.
After the media got hold of information regarding the covenant, TV 3 sent in an undercover reporter (a former follower of the Destiny Church) with a hidden camera and microphone.
Upon broadcasting the footage, the Destiny Church hit back and Bishop Tamaki refused to be interviewed on Campbell Live, instead sending in the church’s spokesperson Richard Lewis.
Mr Lewis said on the programme that TV3 should not have sent in an undercover informant as the church has always employed the use of an open door policy for media representatives.
“There’s a way to do things and that is not it,” he says.
He says that if it had not been for the sneaky underhanded way Campbell Live conducted the investigation, then Bishop Tamaki would have been happy to appear on the programme.
Campbell Live host, John Campbell, says that he had sent a camera crew and a reporter to the church but was turned away by security at the door.
Bishop Tamaki then urged his congregation to reject any word against Destiny Church, after a whole week of media scrutiny suggested the movement was becoming a cult.
Cultwatch’s Mark Vranovich appeared with Destiny Church’s Richard Lewis on the programme and said that the church was undoubtedly showing cult-like behaviour by asking so many people to pledge their allegiances to Bishop Tamaki.
Mr Vrankovich says Destiny church is what he would classify as an emerging mind control cult.
Church officials confirmed “several thousand” people paid $30 each to attend the ceremony, with a $60 concession for family groups.
The New Zealand Herald said that about 700 male members of the church last weekend swore a “covenant oath” of loyalty and obedience to Bishop Tamaki at the ceremony, and were given a “covenant ring” to wear on their right hands.
“A church document describes the covenant as “a solemn oath of commitment that is binding, enduring and unbreakable. You are bound to the covenant, the covenant is an irrevocable, undissolvable oath of commitment”.
“Costs didn’t stop at the door. Oath takers paid $295 – plus a $5 administration fee – for the ring symbolising their loyalty to Bishop Tamaki. Some were given the option of paying the ring off over time.”
The newspaper also estimated that 3000 attended the oath ceremony – an audience which alone would have raised at least $90,000.
Throughout the October/November period dozens of former Destiny Church members came forward to speak of their experiences to TVNZ.
“They [the former followers] believe he has turned the church into a cult expert at extracting cash, more often than not from the people who can least afford to pay,” says TVNZ.
“As far as I can tell it’s a cult” says Auckland University’s theology professor, Doctor Phillip Culbertson. “”It certainly fits the classic definitions of a cult.”
Bishop Tamaki told TVNZ that if Destiny church is a cult then 90% of the churches in New Zealand are cults.
“God does choose men,” says Tamaki. “He puts an authority on their lives whereby he uses them in a special way.”
Tamaki told his followers that New Zealand’s government will soon be upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ.
“I predict in the next five years, by the time we hit our 10th anniversary – and I don’t say this lightly – that we will be ruling the nation.”
Tamaki says that his plans to govern the nation that is not like the governments of this world.
“It’s not a dictatorship, it’s not a democracy, it’s a theocracy.”
Mr Vrankovich says that Destiny members talk more about Tamaki than they do about Jesus Christ.
“There are no crosses inside the Destiny church, just pictures of the Tamaki family and other pastors,” he says.
Unlike the Destiny Church which employs an open door policy, the Exclusive Brethren’s policy on new membership is exactly how it sounds – exclusive.
Last year, the Exclusive Brethren found themselves back in the spotlight in New Zealand’s media after former member, Craig Hoyle, was excommunicated from his church after coming out to his family about his homosexuality.
The 20-year-old told Gay NZ.com, the leading media outlet for gay New Zealanders, that his church leader prescribed hormonal suppressants to him in efforts to keep his homosexual tendancies at bay.
“I’ve had lots of people contact me. Some of them didn’t know anything about my past, and were completely shocked. So that’s been amazing, getting their reactions,” says Mr Hoyle.
Mr Hoyle appeared on 60 Minutes in early December last year to expose the Exclusive Brethren for the way he was treated upon coming out as a homosexual man.
“I think the priests are worried about me telling my story though,” he adds. “They’ve screwed up so badly in so many ways.”
He says that he was keen to share his experiences with GayNZ.com as he thinks that the Exclusive Brethren has been behind closed doors for so long.
“And at the moment, the stuff that’s coming out about the Destiny Church that the media are making a big deal of, well the Exclusive Brethren have been doing that stuff for decades.
Mr Hoyle says that the Exclusive Brethren, like the Destiny Church, made followers agree to a convenant with the church.
“The way Destiny is getting all their men to commit to Brian Tamaki? That happened in the Exclusive Brethren a few years ago,” he says.
Although he was excommunicated from the church, Mr Hoyle says that he still believes in the message the Exclusive Brethren taught.
“It was my Christian faith that helped me get through everything that happened – without something outside of myself to believe in, I would have gone crazy! My relationship with God? I see him as a friend and confident more than anything else.”
Earlier on in July, Australia’s The Age publication published an article on the controversial Exclusive Brethren sect.
The Age says that the Exclusive Brethren are Exclusive Brethren and sects like it present enormous difficulties for secular authorities.
“They keep their members under tight control using psychological and spiritual tactics many might find offensive and which sometimes come into conflict with tenets of the law.”
The article also addresses problems that members must deal with if considering to leave the sect.
“A member who considers leaving the church must also confront the prospect of leaving his or her family and children…in most cases, leaving means never seeing your loved ones again. It means having gifts and letters returned, phones slammed down and doors shut in your face.”
“They combine in their members feelings of superiority over the rest of the population and preference in the eyes of God with a fear of wider society.”
Falun Gong, unlike the Destiny Church and the Exclusive Brethren, remains pretty much unknown to New Zealanders.
However, in China this is very much the opposite.
The Chinese government banned the Falun Gong cult on July 22, 1999, accusing the group of exploiting religion of brainwashing practitioners, cajoling money from them, and even encouraging practitioners to burn themselves in order to fulfill spiritually.
China’s internet censorship programme blocks all content about Falun Gong and those caught practicing Falun Gong are subject to be punished by law.
Xinhua, the major news outlet in China, reported in June that the use of a rehabilitation workshop had been employed for former Falun Gong practitioners.
The news outlet published many first person accounts from people who attended the rehabilitation programme.
During July of last year, the BBC website published an article found that China’s ban on the spiritual movement was working.
The mastermind behind the movement, Li Hong Zhi, told China’s Global Times that “people have realised the true essence of the cult, it’s [now] impossible for them to organise a massive activity.”
During November TV3 broadcasted Inside New Zealand’s documentary on How To Spot A Cult.
The documentary covers an array of controversial religious groups in the country.
Abuse survivors give first hand accounts of what happened to them behind closed doors.
Dr Dennis Green, who has a PHD in religious studies, says that cults are on the increase as people start looking for answers when society undergoes rapid change.
“Whenever there are people looking for answers, there are predators out there who will pray on them,” says Dr Green.
Dr Green says that it is impossible to define a cult and instead encourages for people to look at the leader of the group as they are all sociopaths.