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When evangelical churches become cult-like

April 2020 | by Stephen Rees

I received a sad email from a friend a little while ago. For many years he had served a small gospel church sacrificially as pastor.

His eighteen-year-old son had recently left home to go to university and was attending a church in the university town.  He had been admitted very quickly to the membership and seemed enthralled by what he had found there. And my friend was alarmed. He described the way his son had changed; how uncommunicative he had become, how dismissive of the church where he had grown up.  Apparently, his father didn’t really understand the Reformed faith whereas the church he now attended was a ‘true Reformed church’.

The lad had written to some of the younger members of his home church to explain to them that the church they attended was unbiblical in its teaching and that that was why it had seen little fruit from its outreach.

His confidence in the distinctive teachings of his new church was unbounded.  Every question was met in the same way.  He would simply quote the words of one of the leadership team: a man known as a theologian of great ability and charisma. Or if he wasn’t sure of the answer, he would go away and consult that leader, and then report back the official line.

Apparently, he had been advised to distance himself from his family and his home church. And he made it very clear that he would be home as little as possible: the church he was attending was now his true home.  My friend finished his letter by saying that the grip which that church – and particularly that leader – had on his son was ‘almost cult-like’.

Orthodox but cult-like?

Cult-like!  The word took me aback.  I know that the church he was talking about is a Bible-believing church, an evangelical church, a Reformed and Calvinistic church.  The leaders of that church – including the so-admired leader – would be completely orthodox in their views of Scripture, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the atonement, election, justification, sanctification, the return of Christ.  And yet my friend felt that his son was being drawn into something sinister and ‘cult-like’.

What did he mean?  I understood straight away what he meant. And having talked with other pastors who have had dealings with that church, I can see why he labelled its influence on his son as cult-like.

What do we mean when we talk about a ‘cult’?  We need to be careful because the word has several different meanings.  I’m going to list three.

What is a cult?  Definition 1.

First, the term can be used simply to mean the system of worship that’s followed by a particular group or in a particular place.  Bible scholars often use the word in that way.  So in a Bible dictionary I might find a reference to ‘the Jerusalem cult’ (or sometimes ‘cultus’).  All that means is ‘the system of worship practised in Jerusalem’.  When writers use the word in that way, they are not commenting on whether the worship was based on truth or error.  They’re simply using the word ‘cult’ as a neutral word for any system of worship.

What is a cult?  Definition 2.

Secondly, the word cult is often used – especially by evangelical Christians – to mean organised groups which have separated off from mainstream churches and which hold to heretical doctrines.  That was the way I usually heard the word used when I was growing up.  When Christians talked about ‘the cults’ they were talking about groups like the Watchtower Society (i.e. the Jehovah’s Witnesses) or the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ (i.e. the Mormons) or the ‘Unification Church’ (ie the Moonies).

These groups were labelled ‘cults’ because they call themselves Christian but deny fundamental Christian doctrine.  All the three groups I’ve just listed deny the biblical doctrines of the Trinity and of the Deity of Christ.  All of them deny salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. All of them put other writings alongside or in place of the Bible.

The Mormons have The Book of Mormon; the Moonies have the writings of Sun Myung Moon (especially the book Divine Principle).  The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that the Bible alone has authority but add that no-one can understand it rightly without the help of their publications.

When my friend wrote that the church his son attends is ‘cult-like’, did he mean that, like these groups, it teaches heretical doctrine?  No, not at all.  As I’ve said, that church holds firmly to all the great evangelical doctrines and preaches them clearly.  My friend recognises that.  No, he was using the word ‘cult’ in a third sense.

What is a cult?  Definition 3.

One writer sums up the third meaning of the word ‘cult’ like this: ‘A group or movement (often religious in nature) which requires its followers to submit themselves entirely to its leaders/teachings and which uses manipulative techniques to persuade and control its members’.

When we use the word ‘cult’ in this way, it’s not about how a group worships, or about whether its beliefs are true. It’s all about how the group behaves: what’s expected of its members, and how the group treats its members.  And it’s in this sense that my friend was using the word.  He was suggesting that although ABC church may worship in a biblical way, and though its doctrinal teaching is sound, the way it influences and controls its members is dangerous.

Well, I would want to visit that church and talk at length with its leaders and its members before judging whether my friend’s right.  But one thing I am sure of.  There are evangelical churches, even Reformed churches, which are cult-like in this third sense. When you look at the way they operate, they fit the description only too well.

What are the marks of a church that is becoming cult-like?  I’m going to list six.  They may not all be found together. But when you see any of these tendencies developing, you know that the church is sliding into a cult-like outlook.

(1) INFALLIBLE LEADER(S)

One of the most obvious marks of a cult is that the leaders are treated as infallible.  Every member is expected to follow them without question.  That is obviously true of many heretical groups.  So, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are led by a group of men (currently there are eight of them) based in Warwick, New York.  They write or oversee the writing of all Watchtower publications. Whatever this ‘Governing Body’ writes must be accepted by all Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world.  When the leaders taught that Christ would return in 1914, every JW was obliged to agree.  When they changed their mind about that, every JW was required to follow suit.  If they say that blood transfusions are forbidden, every JW must accept that edict. If they change their mind on that issue, then every JW must fall in line with the new decree.

In most cults, the leaders are more visible than JW leaders.  Often it is one powerful leader rather than a group. The cult leaders are usually men with very powerful personalities, sometimes with an almost mesmeric capacity to dominate their followers.  Jim Jones was the unquestioned leader of the ‘People’s Temple’ – the cult he founded in 1955.  He moved with 9,000 of his followers to Guyana. On 19 November 1978, he ordered the whole community to commit suicide. 918 people died, including 276 children at his command. If he said it, it must be right.

Any evangelical Christian will tell you that the Bible alone is infallible.  Jesus warned his disciples against treating any man as infallible or to be trusted and followed unquestioningly.

You are not to be called rabbi (my teacher), for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father who is in heaven.  Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ’ (Matthew 23:8-10).

The Bible is the only authority that we can trust completely. Any leader or any group of leaders can get things wrong.

Although we all may affirm that’s true, it’s terribly easy for a church – or a group of churches – to start affording their leaders the sort of devotion and trust that should be given to Christ and his Word alone.

A friend of mine visited a conference in the USA which was organised by a church with a well-known pastor who is recognised as a capable Bible teacher. He was staggered to find a large statue of the pastor in the entrance hall. He found that every book on the bookstall had been written by the pastor. And when he talked to all sorts of folk at the conference, he found they answered every question in the same words, ‘Pastor X says…’  It became obvious to him that when Pastor X spoke on any subject, that was the final word.

There are churches in the UK which give the same blind devotion to their leaders.  I have met folk from these churches and been astonished by the members’ inability or unwillingness to think for themselves.  On every issue – theological, biblical or practical – once Mr (or Pastor or Doctor) So and So has spoken, the issue is closed.

My friend has come to realise that that’s the way his son views the theologian he so much admires. Whatever issue he tries to discuss with his son, the discussion ends in the same way: ‘But Dr So and So says…’

The lad has been so overwhelmed, dazzled, ‘enchanted’ by the personality of the leader that he cannot think for himself.  That is indeed ‘cult-like’.

(2) UNLIMITED AUTHORITY

A second aspect of a cult is that its members are required to submit to its authority (usually, in effect, to its leaders) in every area of life.  That’s a key difference between a cult and other organisations. If you join a golf club you know that there will be rules about how you behave in the club-house or on the links.  But the club doesn’t dictate how often you weed your garden or where you go on holiday.  You promise to obey its rules and to submit to the decisions of the people in charge.  But the rules only apply while you’re on the organisation’s premises or involved in its activities.  The authority of an organisation over its members only stretches into the aspects of life in which it is directly involved.

Biblical churches respect that principle. Yes, we recognise that every church must have  rules and every church must have leaders. Members are expected to follow the rules and to submit to the leaders.  If the pastor announces a hymn at the beginning of a service, the members don’t have the freedom to stand up and start singing other hymns in competition.  If he says, ‘We’re going to discuss Genesis 1 in this Bible study’, you don’t expect a church member to say, ‘Well I’m going to run my own Bible study in the next room – anyone who wants to study Matthew 1, come with me’.

There’s always a rule-book – written or unwritten.  So, for example, the church I pastor has drawn up a set of rules about children and the way they should behave before and after services.  The rules are displayed where everyone can see them.  Church members mustn’t allow their children to wander into the kitchen when meals are being prepared or when tea and coffee are being served.  They mustn’t allow their children to play in the car-park unsupervised while cars are coming in and out.  A church needs such rules for safety and for the smooth running of our activities. We have lots of unwritten rules too.  If a church member repeatedly stood up and interrupted services by shouting and arguing, he or she would be called to account.  We would say, ‘That’s not allowed’.

Freedom of conscience

We have to have leaders and we have to have rules to govern the life of the church.  But – and this is the crucial bit – the leaders only have authority to decide how things will happen within the life and activities of the church. The rules that a church has written for itself should only govern what members must do when they’re acting as members of the church.

A healthy church will not try to dictate to its members where they should live, what car they should drive, how many children they should have, where they should shop, what they should have for breakfast, whether they should have a TV or read a daily newspaper.

Why not? Because these things are not directly part of the church’s activities. The Bible doesn’t give definite rules about any of these things.

Of course, where God has given us definite commands, they bind believers wherever they are and whatever they’re doing.  But that’s not true of the sort of issues I’ve listed. The Bible does give us principles that believers must follow in making decisions about all those issues, and the leaders of the church must preach those principles. But members of the church must exercise their own judgement about how to apply those principles in everyday life.

The leaders have no authority to do their thinking and to make their decisions for them.  As the Westminster Confession puts it, ‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men…’.  Or as Paul put it, ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls… Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind…’ (Romans 13:4-5).

The members of this church have covenanted together ‘to follow the leaders of the church… honouring and submitting to their decisions in such matters as concern the church, providing that they are made in accordance with the church’s constitution and with Scripture’.

It’s one of the marks of a cult that it fails to make that distinction.  It will give them rules for every area of its members’ lives.  It will leave them no room for personal freedom.

And yes, again, I have known evangelical churches that have been guilty of the same abuse.  I think of one which tried to regulate how many members of the church could meet together – for whatever purpose – without a church officer present.  So if a group of church members wanted to go out for a meal together or to watch a football match together, they first had to seek permission from the leadership.  I think of another which insisted that every member must submit details of his income to the church and present a budget to the elders for their approval.  They would tell him if he was spending too much money on clothes, or if he should be putting more money into his pension… etc, etc.  There are churches which forbid their members to celebrate Christmas in their own homes, or to listen to rock music or to watch TV.  They tell members which Bible versions they are allowed to read not only in church services but in their private devotions.  However orthodox such churches may be in their doctrine, they are truly labelled cult-like. 

Last month’s edition of Evangelical Times carried a report about the lead pastor of an evangelical church who also headed up an international church-planting network.  It was reported that he had been removed from that position. The ET story drew on an article in the American magazine Christianity Today.  That magazine filled in some of the background.  This well-respected leader had had to be ‘transitioned’ from his post because of ‘a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty’.

Some examples were given of the sort of control that he exercised over church members.  One man reported that he was ‘berated for making travel plans’ without first consulting the pastor. ‘He was told he was rejecting discipline and choosing to be “a law unto himself” .’  A couple ‘said they were confronted for missing an impromptu barbeque with their gospel community in order to spend planned family time with their kids’.

Several ‘were told not to pursue an outside Bible study or social time or not to volunteer with a local coffee shop or summer camp’.  If such claims are true, we have to ask how Paul’s doctrine of Christian freedom could have been so forgotten.

(3) BRAINWASHING

Many cults use manipulative psychological techniques to persuade people to join them and then control them.  They always have done so, but it’s only in the last seventy years or so that we’ve used the word ‘brainwashing’ to describe those techniques.

That term was coined in Maoist China.  Chinese psychologists were sure that they could take anybody – however hostile the were to ‘correct’ thinking (i.e. thinking that was contrary to official state views) – and recondition them to think correctly.  If the right techniques were used, the victim would end up sincerely embracing the views of his captors.  Some of the techniques could be brutal and harrowing.  Beatings, torture, interrogations continuing for days and nights on end, constant suspense, an environment where the victim could keep no track of time, near starvation – all of these could play their part, along with others less obviously cruel.

If you’ve read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’ll have a graphic idea of what such brainwashing could mean.

Well, not many religious cults will use the more brutal techniques developed in China, the Soviet Union, or North Korea.  But many of them are intent on bypassing people’s normal mental safeguards so that people are willing to believe whatever they’re told and do whatever the cult-leaders want.

To take just one example, the Moonies (Unification Church) became notorious for their skill in brainwashing potential converts.  They would take lonely young people away to residential workshops which might last anything between three days and four months.  They would make sure that during those workshps they were never left alone.  The would bombard them all day long with intensive teaching and group sessions.  They would ‘love-bomb’ them with affection, hugs, pats, hand-holding and smiles. When someone finally agrees to join the movement, the convert would be introduced to a rigid regime of fasting, sleep deprivation, constant activity, and separation from family.  They would be so tired and drained that they could think clearly about nothing.

Well, that is one extreme cult.  But many of the techniques it employs are found in other cults too.  Taking potential converts out of their normal life-setting into a world in which they’re dependent on the group; surrounding them with established members of the cult so that they never hear any dissenting voices; disorientating them with a swiftly changing emotional atmosphere – threatening one moment, comforting the next; keeping them away from family and former friends; making them endure teaching or worship sessions which go on for many hours until they’re too tired to think: these are common psychological techniques used by some heretical cults to win and keep converts.

Disgraceful ways?

But surely no evangelical church would use techniques like these? I wish I could agree.  But sadly I can’t. Why do evangelical Christians organise ‘Christian rock concerts’ where youngsters will be battered by hours of deafening music, flashing lights, and a dramatic stage show?  Is it so that the youngsters will be helped to think clearly about the claims of Christ?  Or is it so that their emotional defences will be broken down?  Why does the Alpha Course include a residential weekend halfway through the course where potential converts will be cut off from other influences and made to feel loved and valued?  How is that different from a Moonie workshop?  And how about young people who are pressured to ‘make a decision for Christ’ at summer camps?  I wrote this in an article about such camps some years ago:

‘Put fifty or a hundred adolescent teenagers together for a week and you are likely to have a very heady and emotional mix. Guitars strummed round a camp-fire, outdoor activities that set adrenalin flowing, instant friendships made and secrets whispered in the tents – all this makes for a very emotional atmosphere. For many youngsters, camp will be the most exciting and enjoyable time they have ever known. Perhaps in the past, they’ve thought of Christianity as dull, dreary, negative. But now they discover that a week organised and led by Christians can be full of fun and excitement. Their old prejudices against Christianity are dissolved – they’re ready to plunge into something which seems to offer so much happiness’.

If the camp leaders take advantage of that intense atmosphere to push youngsters into ‘giving their hearts to the Lord’, can’t that fairly be called ‘brainwashing’?

My friend’s son, brought up in a very small church, with few Christian friends of his own age, is suddenly plunged into a large church packed with bright young people all of whom look up to the star theologian.  He’s up into the early hours drinking coffee with them and talking theology night after night. It’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting, it’s exciting – and he finds himself agreeing with everything they say – or everything that their mentor has taught them.  When they sneer at his parents’ beliefs and the ‘failures’ of the church from which he comes, he feels they have to be right.  His dad feels that the grip that ABC church has on his son is cult-like.  I think he has a point.

Think again about Paul’s words. ‘We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.  We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:2).  Paul would have nothing to do with anything that smacked of psychological manipulation.  If only all churches and Christian groups would follow his lead!

(4) SOCIAL ISOLATION

I won’t say much about this because I’ve touched on it under my last heading. But one of the most common features of the cults is that they try to break the natural bonds between their members and the people they were close to in the past – especially family members.  The cultish group demands total devotion from its members.  If they have strong attachments to parents, brothers, sisters, friends, that will hinder them from giving the group their whole loyalty. So those bonds must be broken.

The Lord Jesus warned his disciples that their families might turn against them if they followed him with their whole hearts (Matthew10:34-37).  But he never told his disciples that from their side they should turn against their families and cut them off.  Rather, he preached God’s commandment to ‘honour your father and your mother’ (Matthew 15:4; 19:19).  Paul told believers with unbelieving marriage partners that they must stay with them (1 Corinthians 7:12-15) and assured them that they would not be defiled or damaged by living with unconverted relatives.

By contrast, many cults will encourage their followers to think that any close bonds with people who are not members of the cult will damage or hinder them. Some cults will set up communes so that their members can live together without contact with their natural families.  Some will encourage members to divorce a marriage partner who refuses to jon the cult.  Some will order their members to move abroad (often telling them that it’s their duty to go as missionaries) so as to make it difficult for them to be in contact with parents or friends.

I have had painful conversations with unbelieving people who have been bewildered and hurt by the fact that their children – now in their late teens or twenties – seem to have no time for them.  ‘I think it’s that church he goes to – they expect him to be down there almost every evening in the week.  They want him to be at their prayer meeting one evening, doing door to door work another evening, helping with the youth group another evening, practising with the music group another evening – and then out all day on Sunday… They seem to have taken over his life completely.  We never see him!’   Well, if that’s true, isn’t that cult-like?

(5) EXPLOITATION

Again I can be brief.  Because it’s there in lots of the examples I’ve already used.  Many cults exploit their members ruthlessly.  The young people recruited by the Moonies would be forced to give up their jobs, sell their property, give up all their assets to the organisation, and then spend hours each day raising money for the cult (often by selling flowers in the streets).

In some cults, the leaders exploit their followers sexually; in others they demand that they give huge numbers of hours working for the movement and punish them if they fail to do so.  Frequently, the leaders of the group are hugely rich; the members shockingly poor.

We’re all aware of charismatic ‘televangelists’, who promise healing and prosperity to their followers and take money from them in exchange.  But mainstream evangelical churches can also exploit their members.  Many American evangelical churches in particular, require all their members to ‘tithe’ – to give a tenth of their income to the church, as a requirement for membership.  (How does that fit with 2 Corinthians 9:7: ‘Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’?).

I think of one baptist church planted over here by an American missionary. He wrote into the church’s constitution that 80% of the church’s income must be given as salary to the pastor.  In the early days of the church’s life, he didn’t receive much from the church but that didn’t matter because he was still getting support from the USA.  As the years went by and the church grew, his income increased steadily.  Some of the people in the church were struggling desperately financially.  He was drawing a six figure salary and living in luxury.

Paul could truthfully say, ‘We never came with words of flatttery, as you know, nor as a pretext for greed – God is witness’ (1 Thessalonians 2: 5). If only every missionary and pastor could say the same.  When evangelical churches exploit their members, they have become cult-like.

(6) EXCLUSIVITY

One more mark of the cults.  They, almost without exception, claim that they are the only organisation which has anything to offer. In the case of religious cults, that usually means that if you do not belong to them you cannot be saved, or you cannot receive God’s blessing.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that they are the only organisation that God recognises – his one ‘faithful and discreet slave’.  But the Mormon church makes the same claim (just in different words); so does the Unification church, so does almost every religious cult.

Of course that is a key element in controlling their members.  If you believe that there is no salvation outside the organisation, you will be frightened of challenging it or leaving it.  You will obey all the orders of its leaders, for fear that they will expel you and you will be cut off from God’s favour.  They can exploit you because they know you will never dare to walk away.

Well, few evangelical churches or denominations would dare to claim that there is no salvation outside their own organisation.  But some would certainly claim that you cannot be in God’s will or have his favour unless you belong to them.

I think of ‘the Churches of God’ (the ‘Needed Truth’ group) – a splinter group from the Plymouth Brethren. It teaches clearly that unless you belong to one of their churches, you cannot be a member of the ‘House of God’ or be counted faithful by God.  The charismatic Restoration Movement of the 1970s and 80s taught that unless you were ‘covered’ by one of their apostles, you could not be in the will of God.

And yes, I have been told by members of various evangelical churches that apart from their own church, there is nowhere in the UK where they can truly hear God’s Word preached. To my mind, yes, that is cult-like.  Any group which says, ‘We alone have the truth.  If you want God’s blessing, it can only come to you through us’ is turning into a cult.

Christian Freedom

In the end, the thing that all the cults have in common is that they strip their members of freedom.  Paul had to contend with a Judaising cult which was trying to infiltrate the churches of Galatia. The letter to the Galatians is his passionate response to their attempts to destroy Christian freedom.  He wrote of ‘false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery: to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you’ (Galatians 2:4-5).  And this was his plea to the Galatian believers: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1).  We need to heed that warning today.

All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk