HOW TO RECOGNIZE MIND BENDING "CHRISTIAN" GROUPS

Sadly, 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.

The "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.

There 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.

But 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.

An 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.

COG 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 COG.

And 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.

COG 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.

What 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.

Religious 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.

What are some characteristics of mind bending "Christian" groups? There are a number of points that most of these groups will reflect.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.


The Mind-Set: Rationale and Justifications

There 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.

Joining 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.

Joining 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 special consideration.

Joining 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.

The "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.

These 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 themselves.

The Mind Bending

Mind 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.
 
 How to Recognize Healthy Christian Groups

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. There will be a wide spectrum of ages represented, young and old.

5. Anyone can leave a normal Christian group, surely within the blessings of the group itself, and not be castigated as being a betrayer.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 of heaven..

Kent Philpott
November 1999

 

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