HOW TO RECOGNIZE MIND
BENDING "CHRISTIAN" GROUPS
all is not whole and healthy in what is called "Christianity". it is not
now and really never has been. Reading the letter of Paul to the churches
of Galatia we find that no sooner had Paul established churches there than
others followed him and began proclaiming a different Gospel. These preachers
of a contrary Gospel were actually believers in Jesus themselves just as
Paul was. The difference was these "Judaizers" felt strongly that in order
to have full salvation Gentiles also had to obey the commands of Moses
and keep kosher. Jesus was fine they felt, but it was not enough. So Paul
wrote a letter to the Galatian churches reminding them that salvation was
on the basis of faith alone.
"Judaizers" were a Christian group. They were Jews who believed in Jesus
as messiah, they were certainly what we would call "saved", but they were
actually engaged in distorting the Gospel of grace.
are the major world religions, like Hinduism, and there are major American
cults that evolved out of Christianity (most of them during the Nineteenth
Century) like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. These latter groups
use biblical terminology and hold to some of the doctrines of the historic
church, but vary so significantly from plain biblical concepts that observers
classify them as cults. Many of these groups employ sophisticated psychological
techniques in their recruitment efforts. In addition, there are political
cults, commercial cults and psychological/educational cults. An example
would be EST, now known as the Forum, which might be classed as a psychological/educational
group and is not religious per se.
then, we have some new "Christian" groups which often closely resemble
ordinary Christian groups and denominations but which employ "mind bending"
techniques, either consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly,
to gain, motivate and retain new members. Their theology may or may not
deviate from normative Christianity. An example would be the International
Church of Christ (formerly known as the Boston Church of Christ). And it
is to these groups that I am directing this paper.
example of such a group is the Children of God. (There are some of them
still around, but the organization has disintegrated.) This group appeared
about 1969, led by David Berg and his family. They threw themselves into
the "Jesus People Movement" that was spreading around the world during
the late sixties. I was very much involved in the Jesus people Movement
(1967-1975) and had to deal with COG for many years.
was mostly young people. (Cults tend to be youth oriented. Gray heads are
usually too mature to be caught up in extreme things. By the way, if you
don't see a healthy balance of age groups, you know right away something
is wrong.) They were aggressive, committed, sold-out for Jesus, and were
attempting to live a life they felt mirrored that of the disciples of the
First Century. They preyed on other Christians primarily. They would find
people who already believed in God and believed that the Bible was the
true Word of God. They then attempted to convince these people that the
COG way of interpreting and living the Bible was the only right way. Persons
who were struggling with their Christian life, who were emotionally unstable,
and were in some kind of personal crisis was especially vulnerable to the
the COG was exciting. They had in their rapidly growing membership a number
of very professional gospel rock groups. They would hold rallies that were
better than many of the big name rock concerts I heard in Golden Gate Park
during the period known as "The Summer of Love". It was incredible! The
energy, the enthusiasm, the emotional highs, "heavy spiritual vibes"-it
wasn't like what was going on down at the corner church. COG grew rapidly.
The recruits gave all they had including their money they had and what
they could get from their parents. They had centers springing up all over
the world, and some people thought they had better get on board while they
had the chance.
member was firmly controlled by their leaders. They conducted marathon
teaching sessions. Some of the kids, only a month in the group, seemed
like super Bible scholars. They could really use the Bible to prove their
points. Even some of the big names in the early Jesus Movement were swept
up by COG. A Jesus People leader from Seattle, Linda Misner, a person I
knew and respected for her important ministry, joined the COG and brought
nearly 500 of her followers into COG. Even my long time partner in ministry,
David Hoyt, joined COG. David and I had stood shoulder to shoulder against
COG for several years. When David was in Atlanta, Georgia, heading up a
large ministry, the COG arrived and persuaded David to join them. He did
so hours after he and I had conferred on the phone about how to resist
the COG. David took his family and several hundred young people into COG.
The disaster that overtook David and those kids is a tragic story. I arrived
some hours after the takeover. A Catholic priest, Ed Sweeney, picked me
up at the airport in Atlanta. Ed was active in the charismatic renewal
in the Catholic Church, and Ed and I were good friends. We drove over to
David's Atlanta headquarters, the former French Embassy, a towering and
ornate structure in the old city of Atlanta. There, in the early morning
hours, Ed and I talked at length to a young man who had been in COG only
6 months. As this kid talked, I had the clear and almost irresistible impulse
to join the COG. It was a powerful urge. I began to question the character
of my own Christianity. He seemed to be a real disciple, while I began
to feel inadequate and guilty. If Ed had not been there I am sure I would
have joined the COG that moment. Ed had to take me forcefully by the arm
and pull me away and back to the car. It took me the rest of the day to
recover from the experience. There is tremendous spiritual power that pulls
on a person to join such a group, and let me clearly say, it is not a holy
spiritual pulling either. I am not clear on whether it is demonic or simply
psychological, but I know it is powerful and anyone might be vulnerable.
an appeal COG had. They presented themselves as being just like the early
disciples. They claimed to have no doctrine, "Just the Bible" they would
say. They said they were the only ones who "rightly divided the word of
truth." They had no church buildings as they said church buildings were
not biblical. They all were given Bible names because non--biblical names
weren't biblical. They traveled two by two, the only "biblical" way to
go. Some of them took to wearing sandals and robes, and the most zealous
of them would speak only in King James English. They had given all their
money and possessions to COG, so they lived strictly "on faith." To a young
believer who desperately wanted to be right with God and not miss out on
the Second Coming of Christ (which COG was sure was going to happen at
any hour), it was very difficult to resist. Eventually tens of thousands
joined COG. Now there may be 20 of them left worldwide. But those that
did join, they will never be the same. Most are so burned-out they may
never again count in the kingdom of God.
faith is so powerful, more powerful even than politics, more powerful than
love and hate. Theology is ultimate simply because God is ultimate. And
if God is God, there is an awful lot at stake, more at stake than anything
else in all of creation. So, it is possible to become a religious extremist.
And the groups' that I am writing about here have moved to the very fringes
of faith, to a place that is unhealthy and dangerous. The ideal is to be
a sincere and serious follower of Jesus without being an extremist.
are some characteristics of mind bending "Christian" groups? There are
a number of points that most of these groups will reflect.
New Truth. Sometimes I jokingly say, "New improved truth. They may appeal
to an inspired leader, a revelation, a prophecy, a dream, some special
sacred book other than the Bible, or simply that they alone have the correct
method of understanding the Bible. These cultists are very handy with their
Bibles. Their methods of interpretation are almost always faulty, inadequate,
ignorant and usually literal, but any other viewpoints are put down as
not being from God.
Restored Primitive Christianity. These groups tend to be obsessed with
developing a lifestyle and/or organization they assert is authentic New
Testament--just like in the Book of Acts. The implication then is that
other believers are not living the teachings of the New Testament. Automatically
then, such "church Christians" are dismissed as having polluted the Gospel
and probably are not even real Christians.
True New Testament Organization. These people can only see one way of doing
things. They believe there is only one way to organize--their way. Anyone
else is easily dismissed as being non-biblical. They are generally so narrow
that terminology makes the difference between right and wrong. Jargon becomes
a convenient litmus test.
Works oriented. These groups, whether directly or by inference, insist
that to be right with God you must be with them. Salvation is equated with
being with them. Some groups demand that their own ministers baptize the
person, and often special words must be said or other demonstration be
made at the time of baptism. Salvation for these folks is Jesus plus--plus
whatever it might happen to be-speaking in tongues, baptism, baptism with
the right words pronounced at the same time (i.e., "in the name of Jesus"),
hands being laid on, a recital of past sins, etc. But it is works oriented--faith
in Jesus is not enough. Each such group is clear that they know what that
work is, and interestingly enough, it can only be accomplished with them
and by them.
Unusual emphasis on evangelism and money. These two elements, evangelism
and money seem to go together for most groups in this category. These people
characteristically are hard core recruiters for the group. Notice, they
evangelize for the group and into the group. Authentic Christianity proclaims
the free Gospel of Christ and not a group. These cultists are not satisfied
to see someone receive Jesus as Savior, their real goal is to get the convert
into their group. This is one of the clearest marks of a cult. If a person
they are working on says they are a "born again, baptized believer in Jesus,
serious follower of Jesus in discipleship, faithful in service, a good
steward of their money and active in worship", the cultist will still consider
this person not right with God until they get them into their group. This
is the hallmark of cultism. And then it starts with the money. The tremendous
needs of the group are emphatically explained and the "real disciple" will
make great sacrifices for the good of the group. It often seems that the
real goal of the leaders is to build up the group's bank account.
High level of emotionalism. These groups are big on entertainment. They
are exciting groups to be with. Sociality seems to be very important. The
members spend a great deal of time with each other. Meetings, meetings,
meetings--there are so many meetings that it is easy to check up on the
progress of each person. The meetings may be used to control and monitor
the new convert to ensure their allegiance.
Love Bombing. The COG was expert at this. The perspective and new converts
received a great deal of attention with a lot of "love" floating around.
There is flattery, lots of hugs, but this is withdrawn if a person seems
to be backing out. Love is used to control the person and bring about conformity
to the group. The person is often encouraged to give up on any old friends
that are not in the group. The cult leaders don't like members being involved
with people outside the group and this can lead to a change or loss of
jobs, the ending of friendships and even divorce.
High Demand. This is a technique common to all cults-time demanding of
a high level of commitment. It is commanded, expected, and discipline,
even exclusion, will follow if the demands are not met. The high level
of commitment is often seen by the new person as evidence that the group
is really the true group. The high level of commitment of the members seems
to demonstrate that others must not be true believers or they would be
more excited about their Christianity. They mistake high energy, excitement
and lots of meetings with real faith. They do not see that the essence
of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus.
Proof of Authenticity on the basis of persecution. Jesus said that people
would hate and persecute His followers. Time "Christian" cults behave in
ways that are bound to irritate others, especially other churches. The
"persecution" they deservedly receive is turned around to reinforce the
notion that the cult must really be of God. These people actually are persecuted
in many instances, but they are not persecuted for identifying with Jesus.
They are persecuted for arrogantly pursuing their goals and trampling on
good sense and civilized proprieties. They are persecuted for standing
up for their group.
Mind-Set: Rationale and Justifications
seems to be a general mind-set that characterizes persons who are vulnerable
to cultic recruitment. For instance, they have a need to be right, they
need an authority system that tells them what is right and what is wrong.
They seem to lack an internal set of convictions they trust. They would
rather have a person or an organization determine truth for them. Now,
it is true that for all Christians, growth comes slowly, doubts continually
arise, and we have a difficult time overcoming sin in our lives. Such sins
and doubts and insecurities make some people long for assurance of their
salvation. And cults that have high entrance demands often are able to
bring a certain kind (although false) sense of security and rightness.
This is one reason why there are so many young people in cults and so few
mature adults. Mature persons don't need someone telling them what to do
and what to believe. Consequently cults experience a lot of defections
from people who grow up and no longer "need" the cult.
a cult can be an expression of anger or rebellion toward authority. It
may be the authority of a parent (or parents), the authority of the state
or country, the local police, the IRS, a wife or a husband. or it might
be a deep seated frustration with life in general. Joining a cult may be
a form of acting out, a way of saying, "I don't care anymore." The very
unsavory way in which a particular cult is held in the community may actually
be a point of attraction.
a cult may serve to alleviate a person of a sense of loneliness or meaninglessness.
At first at least, a new convert receives a lot of attention, and hard
workers for the cult are applauded, especially if they bring in new recruits
and/or money. People who give money generously can always be assured of
a cult reinforces peoples' need to feel okay. The group lends a sense of
acceptability. The more conforming a person is to the expectations of the
group, the greater the degree of acceptance.
"Christian cults" are Christian, in that, to some measure, they may adhere
to some of the central truths of the Gospel. It is common for such groups
to be skilled at doing the work of evangelism (or attracting people to
their group). Often, they outdo most other main stream churches in their
evangelistic zeal. Of course, then, when Jesus, His work and word are communicated,
people will be born-again and become real Christians. But, there they are
in the cultic group. And such persons have a difficult time seeing that
they have received forgiveness and salvation from the Lord alone--they
attribute their newfound joy and peace to the group. It would be very fearful
then to leave such a group. One of the chief messages of a cult is that
salvation is tied up in the group--to leave the group is to abandon salvation.
For the young and immature, this is a powerful inducement to stay in the
group even when there are reasons to leave. Such a person seem bonded like
glue to the group. This is why there are cult deprogrammers. Members of
cults may even strongly desire separation from the cult, but cannot do
it by themselves.
are powerful inducements to join a cultic group (thought few ever intend
to join a "cult." The doctrine of the cult is often not nearly as important
as the emotional and psychological benefits. It seems people will express
belief in almost anything as long as the group makes them feel okay about
bending takes place when a person knows better, but capitulates to the
group anyway. The person goes against what they reasonably know to be true.
The mind is "bent". Once that occurs, they are able to swallow a steady
stream of strange concepts and engage in behavior they would once have
deplored. For instance, persons involved in groups that teach that their
way is the only way, that all other churches not holding to their views
are wrong and not really Christian, must then write-off all others not
in their group. They must write-off Billy Graham, all the millions of believers
all over the world and throughout the centuries who not a part of their
own group, even close family members who have refused to accept the group.
This makes a person deny basic instincts and solidly accepted Christian
principles they may have once held. The group has asserted itself so strongly
into the mind of their convert that the person is no longer capable of
independent judgments. They are controlled now by the power and charisma
of the group through the leaders. Control is a significant word here. Cults
devise methods to carefully monitor the behavior and even thoughts of the
membership. Often this is done through participation in small home groups
or Bible studies. All churches have Bible studies and home groups, but
the purpose is different in healthy groups. Cults almost demand participation
in the small group where the leaders are able to "check" on the progress
of the recruit. Deviations are quickly spotted and pressure is asserted
to bring the person back into conformity. If conformity is not immediately
forthcoming, members of the cult will begin to withdraw their love and
attention. If a person continues to act independently, the group will look
on the wayward member as rebellious and as having fallen back into sin.
It is unthinkable that a person would want to walk away from the group
and thereby reject salvation. Any defection is a serious blow to the security
of the group, and extreme reactions to retain a member are common. When
a person does succeed in breaking the iron-grip of a cult, they experience
near complete rejection from their former cultic friends--they are isolated.
The loss of so much, it is hoped by the cult, will result in reentry into
the cult. Now the mind is really, severely, bent.
to Recognize Healthy Christian Groups
The central message of a healthy Christian group is to develop a personal
relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Salvation is proclaimed as
coming to a person on the basis of grace alone through faith, not of works.
The general theology will be fairly consistent with the ancient creed of
the believers down through the ages--The Apostle's Creed.
The church or group is not lifted up as paramount. The message of the Gospel
does not include the group. The message of the cross in central.
The leaders of the group or church are seen as servants. They are not held
to have special power, wisdom or authority simply on the basis of their
position. Such leaders make no appeal to special revelations or visions
as the basis of their position or spiritual knowledge.
There will be a wide spectrum of ages represented, young and old.
Anyone can leave a normal Christian group, surely within the blessings
of the group itself, and not be castigated as being a betrayer.
Normal Christian groups and churches see themselves as part of the worldwide
church, however others may differ from them. They will work with others
and will be involved in associations, councils and conferences that include
believers from differing perspectives. Cults mostly stand alone, they are
rarely in fellowship with others different from themselves.
Normal believers are able to agree to disagree. Cults demand conformity
on all points. Mainstream Christians realize there are many gray areas
that are open to debate and that the Bible is subject to differing interpretations
on many points.
There is a natural kind of humility inherent in healthy Christian groups
that can be seen in the recognition that it takes us all long years to
grow into the fullness of Jesus and that that process is always somehow
incomplete. Love is always covering a multitude of sins and growing pains.
And growth is not measured in conformity to the groups precepts, or the
gaining of knowledge or power, nor measured in zeal and energy levels.
Being like Jesus is learning to be forgiving, non-judgmental, accepting
and loving. Again, a process that is somehow always incomplete this side