Christian Cults In The Electronic Age
For many of us, names like David Koresh, Jim Jones and Joseph Smith come to mind; those mysterious men of the past who led well-meaning people into religious error. In the world of modern magnetic personalities, today’s cult leaders have a new face and a new agenda. No longer a man who leads people with unorthodox teaching, today’s cult leader is more likely to preach the cross of Jesus and teach on the triune God. They also don’t pass out poison Kool-Aid, but if you follow them long enough, you may end up in an early grave from exhaustion. Take a short quiz and see if your hero is leading people down a crooked path.
1) Do you follow the teaching of someone with a public forum or ministry that you consider to be particularly insightful, inspiring or gifted?
2) Does that leader promote the idea that the church has lost its focus and that He’s been given an assignment from God to re-establish it?
3) Does the leader claim to have a special revelation, anointing or mantle of authority given to him that qualifies him in a special way to restore God’s original purpose for the church?
4) Does this leader discourage people from learning from other leaders?
5) Do you encourage others to follow this leader?
6) Do you meet with friends who follow the same leader and read or listen to his messages?
7) Do you distribute the materials prepared by that leader to others? (mp3’s, podcasts, videos, internet links, books, etc)
8) Do you find yourself frequently quoting this leader?
9) Does the leader come under criticism from other Christian leaders on a regular basis?
10) Do you find yourself defending the leader or his teaching before others?
11) Have you lost friends over your support of the leader and his ministry?
12) Do you know people who followed the leader then left and have been criticized for leaving?
13) Does the leader promote any type of activity that he believes is necessary to remain in right relationship with God?
14) Do you wonder if your spiritual activity is good enough to please God?
15) Have people familiar with the ministry ever used words like brainwashing, indoctrination, legalism, performance, or similar words to describe the teaching or activities of the group?
If you answered yes to most of the questions above, you may be following someone who could be considered a cult leader.
Cult leaders don’t wake up one day and decide they’re going to start a cult. The ones I’ve observed seem to be oblivious to what they’re doing. Most of them may actually have good intentions. They seem to have wounds from past encounters in the church. In dealing with the pain, rejection or disillusionment they start a campaign to set things right. These leaders are always visionary people, with a goal of either re-establishing something lost, or bringing to the church something new. From a wounded soul arises a need to be publicly justified. The driving force behind their movement is a bruised ego. These men and women are genuinely gifted and inspiring individuals with a quirkiness that others find admirable.
Though I follow the teaching of different leaders, the ones I follow have one thing that sets them apart from those I would consider to be cult leaders; they’re all accountable to someone else. The model for church leadership involves different people with different functions providing a system of checks and balances. Whether elders and bishops or apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—all church leaders should function in relationship with others to keep egos in check. Without exception, cult leaders believe they are accountable to no one, except God. They resist correction or instruction from anyone.
Though some of them may not know God, many followers of modern cults may be genuine disciples of Jesus, who are saved by grace. Many embrace a biblical world-view. Unlike cults of the past, many followers today are likely to be refugees from evangelical or charismatic churches. Having been poisoned by mainstream Christianity but not wanting to give up on God, they believe they’ve found a better path. Sometimes critical of the mainline church and its lack of enlightenment or its laziness, they have a strong need for accomplishment and acceptance and like the social involvement of the new group’s activities.
The leader demands obedience to what he believes is the call of God. He expects loyalty to the group, its vision and activities. Followers study the approved teachings and know them well. They refuse to entertain ideas contrary to the teaching of the leader and tend to engage in long arguments in defense of that position. Loyalty among these groups is deep. When a member leaves the group they tend to be treated as a traitor, losing the friendships they had inside the group.
I’m a person who enjoys discussing controversial subjects. God is doing some amazing things these days, much of it dripping with controversy. Seeing life from another’s perspective can be healthy. The give and take builds healthy relationships. But with cult leaders, there is no give and take. They tend to be rigid and unyielding in their position. You’ll find little compromise among their followers.
The Internet has given a new spin to fringe Christian movements. The controversial teachings that were once closely guarded secrets are now widely publicized on blogs, websites and social networks. Public debate is inevitable with teaching that flies in the face of conventional Christianity. Members tirelessly defend the group’s position against anyone who questions it. If the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle and willing to yield, a swirling vortex of arguments and accusations may be an indicator that something is wrong.
Cult leaders have a set of unique ideas they expect their followers to know and follow. The teaching revolves around what they’ve learned through special revelation or their own life experiences. In general, they disdain the teaching of others, referring to them as erroneous, unenlightened, unbiblical, apostate, or in some way unworthy of serious consideration. In developing their own material, modern cult leaders nearly always have a biblical basis for their teaching. Some are excellent bible scholars. But in every case, they’ll manipulate scripture to support a new doctrine. Some take an obscure passage and make a major teaching out of it. Others deny the validity of certain passages. Often, they point to the passage in question and claim it wasn’t in the original manuscript, being added later or they question the translation. Cultic teaching always deviates from the word of God in some way.
The Persecuted Few
While not universal, today’s leaders often point to some real or perceived persecution they’ve endured. They may suggest you’ll likewise be persecuted for following them. The common perception of persecution provides an experience the group can rally behind.
Many Christian cults have an established teaching on diet that’s out of sync with mainstream Christianity and the teaching of scripture. Some advise you to eat certain foods or supplements. You can even purchase them from the leader at a price. Others either require fasting or deny the biblical basis for fasting. If a leader takes a hard position on what you should or shouldn’t eat, it should be a red flag.
The two errors the church has dealt with historically are legalism and gnosticism. Legalism is the idea that God’s grace is not enough to keep you in right standing with Him. Gnosticism is the pursuit of esoteric knowledge outside the natural realm.
The New Gnostics
Gnosticism has been around since man first walked the earth. We’ve always desired to know the deepest truths of the universe. But there’s the nagging problem of discerning between knowledge and truth. They’re not the same thing. There’s no shortage of people today who claim to have received special knowledge that will enhance your life. But, there’s usually a price tag attached and what they give you is often a pile of rubbish. I’m as fascinated by the supernatural as anyone. But I’m surprised at the lack of discernment the church has in evaluating supernatural experiences and so-called higher knowledge. The problem is that some have jettisoned reason and scriptural revelation in favor of the ultra-spiritual, regardless of where it leads them.
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia addressed the fact that after he brought the gospel of grace, men came after him teaching that grace was good, but they needed more to remain in good standing with God. They needed to obey the law. There will always be leaders telling us we need to do something to please God. While many fringe groups today agree that the blood of Jesus is enough to pay for our sins. Those same groups also suggest that you may not be a true disciple without meeting their definition of discipleship. Every cult based on performance has some work that needs to be done. Following one of these leaders is a life full of doing this and going there. Long-time followers suffer physical and mental exhaustion from pursuing the nebulous goal of reaching as many people as possible. It’s a game of numbers. If you make contact with so many people, you’re a “good disciple.” But you become a hamster in a cage that’s never allowed to rest.
I consider myself to be a Christian mystic. I have a lot of peculiar experiences. But I don’t do anything unusual to have them. I simply ask God in our time alone, to help me develop a deeper relationship with Him. When I experience something new, I ask Him about it. I search the scriptures to find what it says on the matter. At some point, I’ll share it with a few mature friends to get their take on it. This system acts as a safety net to keep me from falling into error.
I’ve struggled now and then with the notion that I should be praying for more people. I’ve wondered if I don’t lay hands on the sick everywhere I go, are my efforts good enough to please God?
I have friends who’ve been in the healing ministry for years. They’ve lived with guilt when they didn’t have time to honor all the requests to pray for “just one more cancer patient.” If they take a weekend off to be with family, they worry that people will die. They dread opening their e-mail. They avoid friends for fear of being asked to pray for another person.
There’s a subtle deception here. It’s the idea that we can’t be wrong as long as we’re doing something good.
I’ll leave you with a few questions:
If we lead others into deep spiritual knowledge, but in doing so, cause them to fall into darkness, how have we helped them?
If we’re healing people to collect a pile of testimonies, how is God glorified by what we’re doing?
If we see others as “targets” for our ministry, are we truly revealing Jesus to them?
If we suffer a nervous breakdown and alienate our friends and family from years of frantically doing the work of the ministry, who wins in the end?