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06 January 2016

When churches go very, very wrong.

Sometimes churches are wrong. And sometimes they wander into cult territory.

Cult. /kəlt/ n. A religion directed towards one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.

I’ve been throwing this word “cult” around a bit, so I thought I’d better define it. I don’t necessarily mean what your average Christian does by it. Usually they mean definition #4. I mean definition #2.

And sociologists, anthropologists, and other folks whose job descriptions end in -ists, tend to use definition #1. Technically a cult is any religion which has a guru in charge of it. Even Christianity falls under that definition, ’cause Christ Jesus. But in popular culture, “cult” has come to mean a creepy religion. If it weirds ’em out, they call it a cult.

Christians sorta do that too. Didn’t help when Christian academics started using the term to describe heretic churches. Charles S. Braden used it in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

To Braden, “cult” meant heretic. And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. (It’s a book I oughta plug, since it explains just why certain denominations are heretic.) But that’s also the definition you’ll commonly find Evangelical Christians use: Any group which isn’t orthodox is a cult. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the trinity; cult. Latter-Day Saints say Jesus is a created being; cult. Christian Scientists teach death is an illusion, thus Jesus didn’t literally die; cult. Doesn’t matter to most Evangelicals whether these groups even consider themselves Christian: The Muslims believe Jesus isn’t God; cult. The Buddhist do too; cult. And so on.

Depending on how Fundamentalist these Evangelicals get—by which I mean how narrow their view of orthodoxy is—everything can become a cult. I grew up in those churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church let ’em do so, they’ll call you a cult. Because to them, makeup is orthodoxy, and you’re not orthodox. Today it’s makeup; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course, with churches that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (To mix metaphors.)

I refer you back to definition #2: Any church who’s too controlling—who see it as their job to make us behave ourselves, not the Holy Spirit’s—is, as I define it, as most people define it, a cult. Some of those Fundamentalist churches are total cults. And get away with it, ’cause they’re orthodox about all the things which all Christians find orthodox. They believe in God, in Christ, in the Spirit, in the trinity, in Christ’s death and resurrection and atonement—in all the basics. It just happens they also believe whenever Pastor, or one of the elders, or Dad, or any leader, tells ’em to jump, you better ask how high, or you just might not be saved.

That there’s a cult. And a far bigger problem, far more destructive, than a mere heretic church. Heretics are fairly easy to detect, avoid, and leave. Control-freak churches, not so much.

“Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organizations.”

I got that description from theologian Roger E. Olson. He uses TACO for short. I find acronyms, even when they’re clever, annoying. I’ll stick with “cult” if you don’t mind. I’ll quote Olsen:

So here are my suggestions for behaviors that should cause people to RUN from a congregation EVEN IF it is perfectly orthodox doctrinally and even though its reputation is evangelical:

  1. Condoning (including covering up) sexual abuse or sexual immorality of leaders within itself.
  2. Silencing honest and constructive dissent.
  3. Treating leaders as above normal ethical standards, above questioning.
  4. Implying that “true Christianity” belongs to it alone or churches in its network.
  5. Using intense methods of “discipleship training” that involve abuse of persons–including, but not limited to, teaching them they must absolutely lose their own individuality and sense of personal identity in order to become part of an “army” (or whatever) of Christ and using methods of sensory deprivation, brainwashing and/or abject obedience to human authority.
  6. Teaching (often by strong implication) that without the church, especially without the leaders, members lose their spiritual connection to God. […]
  7. Simply closing itself off from all outside criticism or accountability by implying to its members that the “whole world” outside the church is evil.
  8. Falling into magical, superstitious beliefs and practices such as “spiritual warfare” with an emphasis on destroying all of a certain kind of object because objects “shaped like that” are often inhabited by demons. […]
  9. The pastor literally owning the church lock, stock and barrel. Olsen, “TACOs, anyone?”

These are standout symptoms of greater problems. I tend to lump the underlying problems into these two categories: Fruitlessness and legalism.

Granted, you’re gonna find levels of fruitlessness and legalism in just about every church. ’Cause nobody’s perfect. But when the church is structured in such a way as to demand, defend, or hide these behaviors, you’ve got a cult on your hands. Like Olsen said, run.

These are things which will never, ever come up in a church’s faith statement. You won’t realize they’re a cult till you’ve visited a few times and noticed the aberrant behavior. It’s why I point out, when we’re church-shopping, look at the fruit. If it’s not there, something’s very wrong.

More warning signs.

Fruitless. As you know, Christians must produce fruit of the Spirit. No fruit, no Jesus. Period. In the place of fruit you’ll find the usual:

  • They love no one but their own. Often, not even their own.
  • No joy. Not for long, anyway. When someone’s experiencing true joy, someone will get it into their heads it has some kind of sinful component to it, and squelch it.
  • No peace; no trust; loads of fear. Fear of the devil. Fear of the End Times. Fear of the government. Fear of other religions. Fear of foreigners. Fear of false teachings. Fear of popular music and mass media. You name it, they fear it. That’s why all the guns and secret basements and bonfires.
  • They’re impatient, unkind, ungenerous, rude.
  • They commit all sorts of evil and hush it up. If you find out about it, and try to put a stop to it, you get in trouble. Especially when you make it public, or involve the police.
  • While the rank and file will practice some degree of self-control (for fear of getting in trouble), the leadership won’t bother. They won’t control their emotions, their spending, their eating, their sins. But they’ll definitely try to control you.
  • Zeal, a work of the flesh, Ga 5.20 is called a fruit. They’ll fight anyone for Jesus. Usually verbally. Sometimes physically. They “love” him so much, they’ll beat the devil out of you.
  • Knowledge is also called a fruit. Growing up, I had so many people assume I was a strong Christian ’cause I knew my bible, and knew all the stuff my church taught. Made it really easy to get away with hypocrisy.

Notice without the fruit—without the love, joy, grace, and goodness—all the relational elements are gone. They’ve removed everything which makes us able to love one another, do for one another, encourage one another, support one another. All that’s left is the usual dog-eat-dog, crush-or-be-crushed, survival-of-the-fittest principles of our fallen universe. All that’s left are rules. Hence all the legalism. It’s the only thing left, the rotting corpse once you’ve ripped the soul out.

Legalism. People who won’t (or can’t) control themselves often try to compensate by controlling others. So cult leaders are very particular about enforcing the rules. Punishments are harsh. Grace is rare, or non-existent: Grace, they figure, is a one-time deal, a one-time event: It’s God, at the End, forgiving the Christians as he destroys the deserving wicked. But in the meanwhile, don’t you be wicked.

Cult leaders tend to be exceptionally orthodox. For two reasons. Like I said before, it’s their fake fruit; they have no real fruit to point to, so they point to their “bible knowledge” and “sound doctrine” (which ain’t all that sound) and have all the correct answers to all the important questions. Just in case there’s a quiz at the Pearly Gates. The other reason is how they define “cult”: A cult isn’t orthodox. Well, they’re orthodox, so they’re clearly no cult.

Here are some of the legalistic behavior you’ll see them practice.

  • Comprehensive rules about everything. Everything. Far more rules than there are in the scriptures. No room for free will. It’s all about the leadership’s God’s will. They overload people with rules specifically to break their will.
  • Broken a rule? Churches will forgive, but cults hand down punishments. Again, meant to break the will. Therefore they never fit the crime. They’re deliberately excessive.
  • Way too easy to get in trouble. Especially since you’re expected to shun former church members… and they’re everywhere in your town. Feels like there are more ex-members than members.
  • Rules don’t apply to leaders. You might think you’re allowed to disagree—they might claim they’re not infallible, and invite people to correct them when you find they’ve made an error. But if you dare do it, they’ll never trust you again. They’re above question, comment, critique, and dissent. Best to just agree with them on everything. Even trivial stuff: If Pastor says pistachio is the best ice cream, the matter’s closed.
  • Leaders aren’t just treated like God anointed them; the prevalent attitude is that without these specific leaders, you’d go to hell. (And for that matter, the rest of the world is going to hell.)
  • People aren’t just kicked out of the church for sinning. They’re booted for opposing the leadership in any actions, attitudes, or statements. Like I said, way too easy to get in trouble.
  • The rules seem awfully arbitrary. The “bible principles” which back ’em up are ridiculously stretched.
  • Only leaders get to decide which other Christian influences are acceptable. And they don’t do gray areas. If the leaders approve of Christianity Today, you can read it; otherwise it’s forbidden. If they approve of Focus on the Family, you can get their books and listen to their radio show; otherwise it’s off-limits. If they like a Christian CD, you can listen to it; otherwise it’s from the devil, and if it’s in your collection burn it. If the leaders think Catholics are okay, you can work alongside them; otherwise treat them like heretics ’cause they’re going to hell. And so forth.
  • “Spiritual warfare” is also arbitrary: Things are “demonic” for unbiblical, irrational reasons. Ordinary sins are “demonic,” and require long, drawn-out interventions, even exorcisms. (Often they’re really punishments disguised as spiritual warfare.)

Obviously my lists aren’t comprehensive. But you get the idea. They’re entirely orthodox, and proud of it, but their religion is horribly flawed. The relationships they have with Jesus, with one another, with other Christians, and with the bible, will be horribly unhealthy and wrong.

So… how cultlike are we?

Humans are creatures of extremes, and sometimes we Christians get awfully extreme in our devotion to Jesus. This is why I get these questions from time to time: Can we overdo it on religion? Is it possible to be too devout? Can we get, as the popular phrase puts it, “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good”?

When we’re following Jesus properly, and fruitfully, I don’t think it’s possible. The works of the Spirit are kindness, goodness, and gentleness. Cults aren’t kind, good, nor gentle. They stick to covered-up works of the flesh: Hostility towards other Christians and “sinners,” quarreling, jealousy over other churches’ “success,” angry outbursts, selfishness, dissension, division and separation, and a focus on controlling others.

When we read the gospels, one of the things we immediately notice is how the only folks Jesus alienated were Pharisees and Sadducees. Mainly because their religions butted heads with Jesus’s teachings. Exactly like us Christians, the Pharisees got fixated on minor things, used loopholes to escape major things, and suffered from lots of hypocrisy. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were just plain heretics.

Jesus didn’t butt heads with them because he can’t save heretics. Of course he can. The real problem was neither group believed a thing he said. They were so focused on getting everything just right, as they defined “right,” they entirely missed their Messiah.

And some of us Christians do likewise. But back to Jesus: He never behaves that way. He attracts sinful people, and doesn’t shun them, and spend so much time religious activities that he has no time for them. He has rules, but he’s nowhere near as hung up about them as we are, and typically forgives instead of punishes.

A Christian who’s following Jesus properly should be just as attractive to others as Jesus. Period. So… how’re you doing?