Subscribe now

Article

More in this category:

Concerning Cults

January 1999 | by Eryl Davies

I am grateful to readers who write to me in response to my Evangelical Times articles. The letters are always interesting and useful. Some provide me with valuable additional information and insights into a cult, while others are extremely critical of what I write. But each letter is considered carefully and often referred to in an article.

Mishandled

One critic, for example, was ‘sorry’ that I ‘wrote specifically about Waco’ in the November issue. The reason? Because the situation was ‘entirely different’ to what I had described. That is a big claim to make, but I stand by the details mentioned in the November article. My critic continues: ‘I met an educated US lady a few months ago who said we should not judge the US by what happened in Waco and told me of other examples in the US where some petty official with some authority abuses his authority’. The letter continues: ‘The FBI agents were not killed by Koresh and everyone was killed because that was what those who organised this atrocity intended…’

I have sympathy with some of these statements. Certainly, I am not judging the USA by Waco for a couple of reasons. One is that the USA, as a secular state, encourages and seeks to safeguard religious freedom, so that Waco is untypical of what happens there. Another reason is that similar incidents occur in other countries and continents, even in Western Europe. The correspondent also rightly raises questions concerning FBI agents and the US government. To put it mildly, the Waco incident was mishandled by the authorities and, as I will show in the next article, could have been avoided or, at least, prevented from escalating into a major tragic incident. But more of that next time.

In the context of identifying lessons that we can learn from Waco, I want to indicate two specific challenges concerning David Koresh, the Waco leader. The February article will discuss wider issues concerning hermeneutics, religious freedom and the state.

Christian background

The first feature and challenge that needs to be noted relates to Koresh’s ‘Christian’ background. In fact, this is characteristic of the leaders and founders of several Western cults. For example, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), who founded the Watchtower Society, was brought up by God-fearing parents, who were Calvinists and members of a Reformed Congregational church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Until the age of sixteen he respected and accepted the beliefs of his parents, even subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Similarly, Mary Baker-Eddy (1821-1913), the founder of Christian Science, had the privilege of being taught the Bible by sincere Calvinistic parents who were active members of their local church. Like Russell, she reacted against the doctrines of grace in her teens.

Another example is William Miller (1782-1849), who was converted in 1816 before joining a Baptist church. His later date-fixing concerning the Lord’s personal return in glory attracted people to him. This was how the ‘Millerite’ and Seventh Day Adventist movements were launched, even though Miller personally acknowledged his error. It was an Englishman, John Thomas (1805-1871), son of a London Congregational church minister, who established the Christadelphians. His own beliefs slowly became unorthodox and intolerant.

More recently, the Worldwide Church of God leader, Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986), worshipped at a Methodist church in his earlier years. But he drifted away, disillusioned by the inconsistencies of church members and the lack of quality teaching in the church.

A cult which has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons during the last ten years is the Children of God, now renamed the Family of Love. The founder was David Berg (1919-1994) who later changed his name to Moses David. Berg’s father was an evangelist with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in the United States. Berg himself became a pastor of an Alliance church, and then assisted a Pentecostal pastor, before going into coffee-bar youth evangelism. Slowly he compromised his orthodox beliefs but his ‘Christian’ background is impressive.

Challenge for parents

While David Koresh’s background was not as privileged as that of Russell or Berg, nevertheless it was ‘Christian’. Reared by his Adventist mother, Koresh was encouraged to attend church, read the Bible and pray. In 1979 he was baptised into the local Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tyler, Texas. His Bible and an electric guitar were amongst his most treasured possessions, and he spent a considerable time in daily prayer. Although Koresh was later disciplined by the church for creating dissension, his commitment to the Bible and prayer continued unabated.

The ‘Christian’ background of Koresh and other cult leaders is challenging in many ways. One challenge relates to Christian parents, that they should pray fervently that their children might experience genuine conversion and continue to walk with the Lord according to Scripture. While acknowledging divine sovereignty, and the fact that only the Lord can regenerate and save our children, we should remember that the sovereign God uses means in bringing sinners to himself. Such means of grace include the primacy of the Bible, prayer, godly example and teaching.

Here are major implications for Christians, including parents. What prominence, if any, is given to the Bible in our homes? Do we observe family worship? How vital and relevant is it? To what extent do we pray for our children’s conversion and growth in grace? The examples of a Susannah Wesley, or the mother of Hudson Taylor, or the father of John Paton, rebuke the lax attitudes of many Christian parents today concerning the spiritual welfare of their children.

There is the further problem of second generation ‘Christians’, highlighted by the foregoing references to cult leaders. Are our children really saved? Where are the evidences of grace in their lives? Here, then, is the first major challenge arising from Koresh’s ‘Christian’ background.

Continuing in the word

Related to this is also the challenge for genuine believers to persevere in grace and in the truth of Scripture. ‘If you continue in my word,’ declared the Lord Jesus, ‘then are you my disciples indeed’ (John 8:31). Perseverance in sound doctrine and obedience are essential marks of a true Christian.

Here lies a challenge to churches, to be vigilant in maintaining and ensuring sound teaching. Quite rightly, Koresh’s local church disciplined him and did so in an attempt to protect orthodox teaching. The two-fold challenge to churches in this respect is underlined by the apostle Paul. He warned that ‘savage wolves’ would enter the church from outside and inflict damage on the Christians. However, the second challenge is even more frightening: ‘Also from among yourselves’, that is, from among church leaders and members, ‘men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them’ (Acts 20:29-30). The word ‘perverse’ is rendered ‘misleading’ in the NKJV margin, and ‘distort[ed]’ in the NIV. All these terms are appropriate. This is happening in sections of the conventional Christian church today, as well as in the world of the cults.

Knowing the Bible

A second feature concerning Koresh is his knowledge and reading of the Bible. My recent correspondent makes this valid point: ‘Apart from anything else Koresh must have been something extraordinary in so far as he knew the New Testament by heart!’ And there is no doubt about it, Koresh read the Bible avidly and memorised large sections of it. When Koresh first visited the Mount Carmel community in Waco, as early as 1981, the leaders were impressed by his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures.

For Koresh, however, there were pitfalls. He was attracted to the more obscure parts of Scripture. The last book in the Bible, Revelation, fascinated him while contemporary events and their prophetic significance had enormous appeal. An Adventist background led him and others to expect a living prophet to emerge.

Koresh claimed that he was that prophet and referred to private but ‘divine’ confirmations of the fact. Followers were persuaded of his credentials by his vast and profound knowledge of Scripture. The Waco leader insisted that he had been divinely sent to ‘explain and to do the Scriptures’. In fact, he claimed to be able to ‘open the Seven Seals’ of the book of Revelation. An aura of infallibility was attached to his Bible expositions and interpretation of contemporary events.

I will return to this theme next time, but there are danger signals here for Christians. While the Bible itself is infallible, our own interpretation of it is notoriously fallible. Do we recognise this? Are we guilty of wrongly attaching cultic status to some of our pastors, Bible commentators or conference speakers? Let us beware!