Cults: Are You A Part Of One?
by Michael Tummillo
CULTS, NOT THE OCCULT
What’s the difference? I’ve heard many people attempt to use these two words interchangeably and, often, inappropriately.
Quite simply, the word “occult” is derived from a Latin word (occultus) that means, basically, “that which is hidden.” The word “cult,” on the other hand, comes from a word which means “to cultivate.” In other words, to break down and train up in accordance with the prescribed method. That’s what this article is all about.
DEFINING THE CULTS
Many years ago, as I was devouring every spiritual thing I could get my hands on (good and bad), I wound up involved with a group that 20/20’s Barbara Walters later referred to as “the fastest growing cult in America.” The group referred to themselves as the Boston Church of Christ and/or the Cornerstone Church of Christ. They now refer to themselves as the International Churches of Christ, not to be confused with the traditional Church of Christ. I’ll spare you the many gory details but, essentially, this group was known for their unique “discipleship” technique - nothing short of blackmail - which has resulted in quite a few lawsuits. In fact, I was one of those who ultimately wound up getting a lawyer who wrote them a letter to get them to leave us alone.
Afterward, one man, referred by the group as my “discipler,” called my home one evening, trying to make sense of my legal action. I naively informed him that he was involved in a cult (something cultist actually expect to hear, seeing it as persecution which only underscores their purposes) that had received numerous law suits and that he should leave the group at once. He laughed at the absurdity of the notion as my warning only confirmed his convictions that he was on the right team. At the end of the conversation, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll see ya in Heaven, huh?” He snapped back, “That’s the point, Michael…one of us isn’t going!” Since then, I have been invited to several of that group’s Bible “Studies” and wound up being more than a little disruptive by way of the questions I was asking that threw off the speaker’s sales pitch. No converts were made on those nights, that’s for sure.
Please bear in mind that these were well-meaning, kind, VERY sincere individuals. But they were deceived. Remember, they are NOT the enemy…we already know who that is!
A man who was considered by many to be the greatest authority on the cults, the late Dr. Walter Martin, described a cult simply as “A group of people gathered around a specific person’s misinterpretation of the Bible.” Cults are groups that claim to be in harmony with Christianity but deny foundational Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the unique deity of Jesus Christ. The group I had joined agreed with most everything the traditional Church of Christ teaches except that it took James 5:16 too far (”Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed”). They actually had used people’s confidential confessions as a means of blackmailing and were sued for slander and defamation of character. One of the signs of a cult, according to James Walker of Watchman Expositor, is that they will multiply, divide, add or subtract from basic Christian doctrine.
Jesus warned us about the cults. In Matthew 7:15-17, he warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.” Here, what Jesus was warning us was that cultists will look, act, and sound very much like genuine Christians. However, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. One can masquerade as a true believer for a time, but eventually one’s words, actions, and especially one’s beliefs will betray them. That’s why relationship is SO critical to us as we enter into spiritual involvement with others. Galatians 5:22 tells us what the fruits of the Spirit - the evidence that the Holy Spirit resides within us - are. Just because one calls themselves Christian doesn’t mean they ARE, no more than standing in a coffee bar makes one a Cappuccino.
Why is the cult I was involved with - or any other cult - growing so fast? Their growth can be attributed to several key factors:
1) We were warned by Jesus and the apostles that there would be days like this. In Matthew 24:23-26, Jesus warned that, as His return draws near, there will be an increase in false prophets who will ensnare many with false teachings. It’s true. It’s happening. I see it all the time. In 2 Peter 2:1-3, Peter warns us that false teachers will arise from WITHIN the church. Yes, that’s happening, too. Bad, unbiblical teaching abounds!
2) The growth of the cults contributes to the breakdown of the family, including Christian families AND the universal family of God, all those who consider themselves born-again children of God. Also, the breakdown of the family unit has served to fill the ranks of cults as people go looking for acceptance. As families go, so goes the Church. As the Church goes, so goes the nation. Like urban gangs, cults provide the acceptance and family atmosphere longed for by many who stem from broken homes. The cult leader often winds up taking the place of a father figure.
3) Finally, we can attribute the alarming rise of cults to the failure of the Church to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ. It has been said, “The cults are the unpaid bills of the church.” Cults thrive because Christians are lacking in biblical and theological understanding, therefore, we have very little impact on the spiritual climate of our nation. Dr. Martin stated, “The rise of the cults is directly proportional to the fluctuating emphasis which the church has placed on the teachings of biblical doctrine to Christian laymen. To be sure, few pastors, teachers, and evangelists defend adequately their beliefs, but most of them — and most of the average Christian laymen — are hard put to confront and refute a well-trained cultist of almost any variety.” If the church engaged in solid and in-depth Bible teaching, the Body would become better equipped and, when we came in contact with those in bondage to a cult, we might actually help them. If this were the case, the cults
would not flourish as they do. Bible illiteracy is key.
In 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul warned about false teachers teaching of another Jesus. A modern-day example of false teaching is Christian Science which teaches that Jesus was not God incarnate but merely a man who displayed the “Christ” idea; He neither died for sins, nor was He resurrected. I heard of a group that called itself the Church of the Sacred Mushroom that claimed, based on Roman 10:9-10, that because they named this particular mushroom “Jesus” and believed in “him,” they were saved. It’s important to learn exactly WHO the Jesus is that any particular group is referring to. He is NOT Lucifer’s brother as Mormonism teaches nor is he the archangel Michael as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim. He is God in the flesh, 2nd person in the Trinity, born of the Virgin Mary, etc.
Oddly enough (and I’ve had this experience often), when we interact with people caught up in cultic teaching, we’ll often hear them say their group’s message is consistent with Scripture. But when we point out where their teachings deviate from the Bible, they eventually claim the Bible is filled with discrepancies and has been corrupted by the church. When asked to show a discrepancy or two, they generally are stumped as they were merely “parroting” and regurgitating what they were taught to say.
THE 3 KINDS OF DOCTRINE
There are 3 types of doctrine mentioned in Scripture: Those of man, of demons and of Christ/God. Whatever any of us is being taught by our leaders, we MUST ask the question, was it derived from manmade traditions, was it a doctrine sown into the group by Hell itself…or was it something taught by Jesus? DARE to ask these questions, my friends! Not only do cults deviate doctrinally from biblical Christianity, but they have several distinct sociological characteristics:
Is the leader or organization trying to exercise complete control over the follower’s lives? Are the teachings of leadership considered the last word or even divinely inspired? Is going against the leadership equivalent to going against the commands of God Himself? Are you ostracized or shunned if you buck the system?
Most cults believe they are the true “church” and the only ones who are actually saved. This is because the group believes they have new revelation or understanding that gives them superior standing. I’ve been associated with no less than THREE mainline denominations and one cult in the past quarter century and they ALL claimed to be “the one true church.” Remember, the Church is NOT a building or a denomination…it’s the people of God; the Body of Christ. Not every part of the Body functions the same way, said the nose to the index finger.
With their elitist mentality, cults are convinced that those who disagree with them are deceived or even under the influence of the devil. Therefore, many attempt to shelter their followers from the outside world. Physical and even psychological barriers are often established. The faithful are advised or prohibited from communicating with outsiders who do not agree with their methods.
I was involved with a popular church of more than 2,000 members where, in an emergency meeting, the elders gathered the staff (including me, a janitor at the time) to “warn” them about a certain minister’s perceived attempt to start his own church (he held a house party; I was there). In that meeting, one elder warned that “our people should be careful about who they fellowship with.” Another elder jumped in, “I think we should take it a step further and COMMAND them not to fellowship with other groups!” I couldn’t sit still and chimed in, “You guys are starting to sound like a cult. If we were all being honest, this is all motivated by fear of losing tithers….” Needless to say, nobody said another word to me after that. Ever.
Closed-mindedness and discouragement from individual thinking are other cultic characteristics. Because of their authoritarian nature, it is believed that only those at the helm are qualified to properly interpret God’s Word. All members are taught to consult the organization for biblical interpretation and advice on life decisions. Should I marry so-n-so? Should I quit my job? We must ask ourselves if individual thinking and questioning are discouraged. Is there an unwillingness to dialogue and consider other viewpoints? Perhaps you’ve heard (herd?) of the shepherding movement, most popular in the 1980’s. It’s still around. Frankly, in this movement, the flock gives the leaders all their power by asking them about every move they make.
I once approached a minister asking for his input on financial matters, he did so with a disclaimer, saying that he was here for spiritual direction, not financial advice. Though he offered his opinion, he advised me to seek an expert. That was a healthy response.
Are they teaching salvation based upon God’s grace, or based upon your own good deeds? Is the group making disciples along the lines of Jesus and His teaching, or are they producing church-workers? A cult will teach a works-oriented “gospel,” giving its members many hoops to jump through. This leads to a lifestyle of legalism and ushers in the Spirit of the Pharisees. Followers must live up to the group’s standards in order to attain or maintain their membership and hope for eternal life. There is an obligation to faithfully serve, attend meetings, studies, and services. As a result, there is tremendous, though often subtle, pressure to live up to the requirements of the organization. An ungodly caste system is the created between those who are “spiritual” and the others. The Spirit of Pride is the next demonic presence that waltzes in, as does the Spirits of Guilt, Shame and Unworthiness as Christians compare themselves with one another.
A DIFFICULT EXIT PROCESS.
When salvation is found by way of the organization, to LEAVE the organization can only be considered the equivalent of turning one’s back on God. All former members who leave cults are shunned by members which often includes members of their own family. Many are warned that, if they leave, they’re going straight to Hell. Many ex-members are harassed by the organization even after they leave. As I said, in my own case, we had to employ the services of an attorney to get our friendly neighborhood cult to back off. Those who are shunned, or hurt, by this negative spiritual experience, often end up distrusting any religious organization and end up feeling isolated, alone…shipwrecked.
Life in the cults is marked by fear of judgment, pressure, and legalism. This is a far cry from what Jesus taught us. Jesus and the apostles said that the new life in Christ is one of grace, love, and freedom from the Law. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The peace and rest promised by Christ is seldom experienced by those enslaved by the cults.
First Peter 3:15 states that we must always be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” How can we prepare? By knowing the Word of God through diligent study. We must not forget that, once we’ve overcome our fears, we must reach out to cult members, exercising the fruits of patience and gentleness as we share the truth in love.
The rise of the cults pose a serious challenge to the Church because they present several dangers to the Church and families involved. Here are some of the types of danger associated with cultic religions…
First Timothy 4:1 states “…that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” Ultimately the spirit behind all lies and deception is the devil, so the ultimate force behind the cults is Satan.
Galatians 1:8 states, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other that than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.” The false gospel of the cults cannot lead anyone to salvation. There are eternal consequences for false beliefs. For this reason Jesus and the apostles are very harsh on false teachers.
The mind-controlling techniques used by the cults can cause immense damage mentally and emotionally. Living under the pressure, guilt, and dependence on the organization has proven to have tremendous negative effects on people.
Individuals are taught that loyalty to the organization is equivalent to allegiance with God. Therefore, loyalty to the organization
supercedes loyalty to family. Thus, if a family member begins conducting himself in a way the organization does not approve of, the cult will often separate the family from the individual member. Isolation can be emotional or physical. Numerous families have been separated as a result.
The teachings of David Koresh cost the Branch Davidians their lives. Vernon Howell, his real name, was an aspiring rock guitarist who became the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidian sect, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. The Branch Davidians were an apocalyptic sect founded by Ben and Lois Roden in the 1930s. Howell joined the Branch Davidians in 1981 and was quickly in good graces with Lois, the head of the church. She died in 1986 and Howell was left in control. By 1990 he had changed his name to David Koresh and had settled with more than a hundred followers in a compound called Mount Carmel, ten miles outside of Waco, Texas. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tried to execute a warrant for Koresh on February 28, 1993, part of an investigation into allegations of illegal weapons and child abuse. A shoot-out ensued that left ten dead: four BATF agents and six Branch Davidians. Koresh
and his followers holed up in their compound and a confused state of negotiations went on for 51 days, ending on April 19, 1993 when the compound burned to the ground, killing Koresh and 74 followers, including 21 children. Although a special investigation by the U.S. Justice Department exonerated the government, the debate over who started the fire goes on.
Hobart Freeman taught that believers did not need medicine for illnesses, and told his followers to throw all theirs away. As a result, he and fifty-two of his members died from curable conditions. He taught that after healing is claimed, symptoms of illness or injury that remain are viewed as deception from the devil. When death occurs despite a positive confession, it is interpreted as discipline from God or a lack of faith. The saddest part is that it did not stop with Freeman. There have been over 100 people (members) of Freeman’s Church who have died as a result of his teachings. Numerous lawsuits have been filed and parents convicted of child abuse.
This type of thinking is the same as other cult leaders like Victor Paul Wierwille of The Way International who died of an illness. Apparently something was wrong with his faith, and also for Hobart Freeman, who too, died of an illness that may have been medically treatable.
Jim Jones, founder and leader of Jonestown, Guyana, a community of over 900 members of The People’s Temple Full Gospel Church, an offshoot of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), moved his congregation to Guyana to avoid government scrutiny. In November of 1978, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Ryan and his group were murdered at Jonestown, and on November 18, 1978 Jim Jones and 911 of his followers committed suicide or were murdered. Initial reports said the members drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, but a report from the Guyanese coroner said that hundreds of the bodies showed needle marks, indicating foul play. The U.S. government has not released all the documents pertinent to their investigation of the incident, further complicating the long-held conspiracy theory that Jonestown was a mind-control experiment conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Who knows?
WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN TO DO?
In light of the cultic threat, what are Christians called to do?
1. We are called to study and know the Word of God. Paul writes to Timothy and all saints saying, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the world of truth.” Christians should master the Bible so that they will not be deceived by any false teaching.
2. Titus commands us to be able to confront and refute false teachers.
3. In Acts 20, Paul exhorts the leaders of the church to protect their flock from the false teachers that will prey upon the sheep. Every Christian is called to know the truth so well they can confront false teaching, and protect others from it.
If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds. 2 Jn 10-11
The cult member has been told the same lies so many times that he believes they are true. He’s been told that his group is the only one that has the truth. He has been told that the world considers his group a cult. He has been told that disciples of Jesus had to undergo the same persecution he does. You are talking to a person that thinks they are right.
Are you considering joining a particular religious group? In light of today’s spiritual smorgasbord, if you’re not sure if an organization is a cult, do these three things:
1. Take a look at their founder. Is that founder Jesus? Is Jesus STILL considered to be that founder - the Head - moreso than any man or organization? If He’s NOT, run, don’t walk in the other direction. Does current leadership claim to be the founders of all things Christian and snub or condemn all others? Good doesn’t come out of evil. Jesus said an evil tree cannot bear good fruit and this is true for cults.
2. Who does the group claim Jesus is? An ascended Master? Lucifer’s bother? A mushroom? Something else?
3. What do they say one must do to “be saved”? If it’s anything more than Romans 10:9-10, beware.
About the author:
Pastor Michael is founder of t.e.a.m. ministries (firstname.lastname@example.org). His eMail broadcasts, known as “Your Town for Jesus” (Google it!) are reaching around the globe WEEKLY. Some estimate that millions are receiving these messages. Write him at email@example.com if you’d like to SUBSCRIBE to receive his messages directly. Michael’s mission is to bring Discipleship and Encouragement to the Body of Christ. He is the author of numerous booklets on a variey of subjects that will interest the thinking Christian. Since 1999, he has written and broadcast over 200 hundred inspirational articles and a dozen booklets, all designed to accelerate the process of spiritual development in God’s people. He is a licensed/ordained minister, a Certified Workplace Chaplain, a Professional Member of NIBIC and a Speaker on the Christian Speaker Network and may be available to speak with your group.