I have been confronted during 15 years of ministry in California, Europe, and New England with many evangelicals who either have come out of cults or are attracted to a cult. In all of my conversations with such people, the central issue has never focused on cultic doctrine. Usually, doctrine was an after-the-fact issue. What, then, makes our people in the evangelical community vulnerable to cults?
A close examination of every major cult today, with the exception of Eastern cults, reveals that many began in an evangelical church or with a leader from an evangelical background. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church (Moonies), was raised in a missionary Presbyterian home. Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple, accepted Christ in a Nazarene church and was pastor of an interdenominational charismatic church and a Disciples of Christ church. Moses David, founder of the Children of God, came out of a Christian and Missionary Alliance background. Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way, was an evangelical, and a Reformed pastor. Many of the older, more established cults had evangelical roots, including Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What is common to these churches and church leaders who have been led to cultism?
First, they all started by describing themselves as in opposition to their local church or denomination, or to the church at large. They had discovered the ideal church. The foundation was always begun with an identity by opposition.
Second, in these systems the pastor or leader was placed in a position beyond confrontation, coupled with a tight discipleship or shepherding approach to instruction.
Third, these groups placed a high emphasis on group sharing, testimonies, spirituality, devotions, and in some cases, Bible study.
Fourth, in these groups the leader had gained some new spiritual insight emphasizing the last days, healing, community, or spirituality.
Fifth, these groups placed a high value on community and caring.
Finally, all such groups slowly developed their own subcultural spiritual language.
Many evangelicals who are drawn to cults are not drawn because of beliefs or doctrine but because of similarities to Christianity that we value as marks of spirituality. The members of the People’s Temple never expected to end up in Jonestown, as Mel White so clearly illustrates in his movie Deceived. It is easy for us as churches and as individuals to write off these groups and try to remove by remote control our responsibility to face our own vulnerability to cultic deception. If you think you or your church are not vulnerable to these dynamics, you are the most vulnerable. In all my conversations with former cult members, and with those presently struggling with cultic leanings, I have found five similarities between cults and evangelical churches.
We evangelicals place a high emphasis on our experience of Christ. So do the cults. We have a tendency to witness to our conversion rather than of Christ. We often view our conversion experience as the gospel; it is not. The gospel is that Jesus Christ entered human history, died, and rose from the dead. If you believe in him as Savior, you stand before God totally in the clear.
Our overemphasis on subjective experience has some of its roots in the reactions to rationalism, naturalism, and liberalism that infiltrated the Protestant church during the past century. Lacking an apologetic base, gospel verification soon became a matter of subjectivity. Often religious telecasts, Christian magazines, and Christian biographies confuse the gospel with a person’s experience of the gospel. As a consequence, our criteria for determining spirituality are often confused, subjected to the criteria of personal experience.
Recently we had a guest speaker on our campus whose content was profound, biblical, and challenging; but his delivery was slow, deliberate, and presented in a low-key voice. The students’ biggest complaint was that the speaker was not spiritual.
Several weeks later we had a guest speaker who was a master communicator. His content, however, contained little Scripture, and much of the message put down evangelicals, the middle class, suburban life, and Western culture. Little in the sermon was instructive in enabling and equipping the believers for service, ministry, and growth, or in facing sin and forgiveness. The sermon was punctuated with emotional, moving stories. At the end, the community gave a standing ovation.
Afterward, I asked the same students who had found the first speaker “unspiritual” what they thought of the second. Their overwhelming response was that the second man was very spiritual. Not one of them could remember the content, but they felt he must have been a man of God. “I felt God’s presence and I was challenged to commitment.” Such a reaction to a moving speaker is just one example of the dynamics prevailing in many of our churches. And we wonder why our people foolishly follow a pied piper to never-never land. The cults offer charismatic leaders who will move you spiritually—to commitment and often to tears.
All of this is complicated by the fact that we often define spirituality on the basis of devotions, quiet time, prayer, evangelism, and Bible study rather than holistically, as Scripture does. Scripture begins with Creation and climaxes with Christ redeeming all of life. Christians live total lives obediently before him—in families, jobs, mind development, prayer, evangelism, and relationships.
Evangelicals are easily manipulated by anything that hints at spirituality. There is a popular prefacing phrase that goes, “The Lord led me.” At first this sounds very spiritual. However, if you examine Scripture, you will find it is seldom used, except occasionally by false prophets or for deception. For example, Joshua was deceived by this type of spiritualizing (Josh. 9:8–9). Jacob deceived Isaac (Gen. 27:20) by using it. God does lead us, but these words are often overused and can become a tool to manipulate others or to avoid being responsible for the decisions God places before us. To misuse this phrase can easily border on taking God’s name in vain.
Last spring I received over 20 letters from pastors, evangelists, and leaders of musical groups who were “led of the Lord” to minister in New England during the first half of October—during the peak of the fall colors! Interestingly, God never seems to lead such ministries to New England in February.
All cultic leaders and churches that become cultic place a high emphasis on being “led by the Lord.” Misuse of this term can make us prey to cultic tendencies.
Evangelicals also tend to couple their definitions of spirituality with leanings toward legalism. This can make us frustrated with our churches, which never live up to the expectations of the ideal spiritual church. As a result, we are attracted to situations that promise or offer a more nearly perfect or spiritually ideal community. We often forget that perfect communities come at the expense of human freedom.
Expectations Of An Ideal Pastor
Evangelicals not only have concepts and expectations of an ideal church, but also of an ideal pastor. Cults offer both the ideal pastor and the ideal church.
While in Europe 10 years ago, I had contact with a youth missions organization based in Switzerland. Each team member, upon arrival, was given a victory sheet that told him he was never to question those in authority over him, and never to write home anything negative. But to deny sin and reality is certainly not the biblical model.
We seem to long for two major spiritual images in evangelical circles. One is the successful bionic pastor or missionary whose church markets him in a cassette ministry; usually he is good-looking. Unfortunately, bionic people are half machine. The other image is the inner-city-guitar-Levi model who rejects all middle-class trappings. Unfortunately for this model, the sixties were 20 years ago. The biographies and autobiographies of both these figures tell of success and of ideal images to be followed. Each “image of perfection” borders on idolatry and leads us to live under guilt because it places unrealistic expectations on us.
We compare ourselves to models presented on talk shows and in books, but we fail to discover our own creative gifts and abilities to serve God. Unlike Scripture, these people usually speak only of success and rescue stories.
Like members of cults, we have difficulty admitting our own sins because we want to be the ideal. I have worked in two pastorates, one evangelical and one liberal, on my journey toward a deeper spiritual commitment. The one thing that impresses me about the cultural differences between these movements is that when problems arise, liberals face them openly, admit their wrongs, and ask forgiveness. I find, however, that we evangelicals have a tendency to justify our behavior, spiritualize it, or to blame the church structure for our shortcomings. Our inability to deal with our own sins and weaknesses, coupled with our ideal models, makes us very vulnerable to cultic-type leaders who present an image of successful and sinless leadership.
Choice And Guidance
Both evangelical groups and cults place tremendous emphasis on guidance. Many cults emphasize group choice over personal choice, or urge choices aided by a leader or discipler. Many of the cults mentioned earlier began with a tight authority system of accountability. Although we can observe many exciting things happening in the area of discipleship in evangelical churches, there are dangers of abuse. Many current evangelical trends toward shepherding and discipling encourage people to allow a leader to make decisions for them.
Cultic leaders often build their systems for guidance and authority on Bible verses taken out of context. But many of our churches also emphasize one aspect of scriptural teaching and exclude the rest. The result is that some churches built on body life are lacking in worship; others built on discipleship may fail to allow for diversity. Furthermore, such practices can lay the framework for an identity by its opposition to the rest of the body of Christ. It moves out of the authority of the totality of Scripture. Almost every cult began with focus on one aspect of Scripture to the exclusion of the rest.
Cult members and evangelicals both place a high emphasis on sharing. When sharing is elevated as a sign of spiritual maturity, however, we are vulnerable to a cultic group mentality. Sharing for the sake of sharing can easily lead to group manipulation, exploitation, and autocratic control. While we may have a tendency to equate spirituality with sharing of our deep personal concerns, so do most cults. Like evangelical groups, cults place a high emphasis on devotions, evangelism, self-denial, and prayer as outward signs of spirituality.
Authority Or Independence?
Many churches were established either as a reaction to liberalism or as a split from another church that did not emphasize what its members felt should be uniquely emphasized. Evangelicals do not often belong to churches with a tradition of authority; we tend to pride ourselves on our independence. But of whom are we independent—God, Christ, the rest of the body of Christ? Can the head say, “I have no need of the arm” (1 Cor. 12:12–20)?
Cults view themselves as independent, and it becomes easy to identify with a cult in an effort to oppose a church. As evangelicals, our own independent attitudes make it easy always to be looking for another community that promises something better or superior to the one in which we are at present.
Coupled with this independence is a confusion of unity and uniformity. We often long for uniformity—charismatic with charismatics, Baptist with Baptists, high church with high churches, free church with free churches. We seek out those who will reinforce our own likes and dislikes. The result is a blindness to the richness of diversify God offers us within the body of Christ, and a blindness to our own mental tendencies to write off other members of the body of Christ. We subtly remove, by remote control, our responsibility to “love one another” (John 13:35). Each cult offers both uniformity and identity by opposition.
Evangelicals are seldom drawn to cults because of beliefs or doctrines but because the cults offer something more: a heightened sense of spirituality, an ideal leader, group guidance, group sharing, and uniformity and identity.
If we think we are not vulnerable, we are most vulnerable.
Dr. Bussell is dean of the chapel at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. His article is adapted from one printed earlier in The Gordon (June 1981).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.