|Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Cults|
Cults often resemble or even surpass Christianity in the practices we consider as marks of true spirituality.
by Harold Bussell
erry was a leader in the youth group at the first church I served in California. He'd become a Christian a year earlier and had a glowing testimony.
Then Terry became a Mormon. I still remember his defense: "But Mormons don't drink or smoke."
As with many of us, Terry's conversion to Christianity included adopting these cultural taboos. Along with the emphasis among evangelicals on personal happiness and group support, these taboos had confused Terry about what constitutes Christianity.
To him, those in the camp of the cults showed more consistency in keeping their convictions, deeper group commitment, and more genuine happiness and sincerity. So he concluded, "They must be more Christian."
During my years of ministry, I've been confronted with many evangelicals who have come out of cults or who are attracted to a cult.
Yet in all my conversations with them, the central issue has never been doctrine. That was usually a minor concern. Something else in the evangelical community is making our people vulnerable to cults.
Every major cult, with the exception of Eastern groups, began in an evangelical church or with a leader from an evangelical background.
Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, was raised in a Presbyterian home. Jim Jones, founder of the People's Temple, professed Christ in a Nazarene
Dr. Bussell is dean of the chapel at Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., and author of Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians (Zondervan).
church and was pastor of an interdenominational charismatic church and a Disciples of Christ church.
Moses David, founder of the Children of God, had a Missionary Alliance background. And Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of The Way, was an evangelical and a Reformed pastor. Many of the older, more established cults, including the Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses, also had evangelical roots.
Each of these cults and their leaders share several common ingredients:
First, they all began by defining themselves in opposition to their local church, denomination, or the church at large. They had discovered the "ideal church."
Second, the pastor or leader was placed in a position beyond confrontation. With this came a tight disci-pleship or shepherding approach to instruction.
Third, these groups emphasized group sharing, testimonies, spirituality, devotions, and, in some cases, Bible study.
Fourth, the leader had gained some "new spiritual insight" emphasizing the last days, healing, community, or spirituality.
Fifth, they placed a high value on community and caring. They also eventually developed their own terminology for their spiritual subculture.
It's easy for us to write off these groups and deny our own vulnerability to deception. But the members of the People's Temple never expected to end up at Jonestown, either.
In my conversations with former cult members and those struggling with cultic leanings, I've found five
similarities between cults and evangelical churches that can pave the way for Christians to cross over the line into deception.
We evangelicals place a high emphasis on our experience of Christ; so do the cults. We tend to witness to our conversion rather than about Christ— to the results of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.
But our conversion experience is not the gospel. People also undergo dramatic experiences as they are "converted" by an encounter group, a meditation society, or a cultic community. They can also speak of a new happiness, emotional security, or sense of belonging.
The gospel is that Jesus Christ entered human history, died, and rose from the dead. And the new birth is not based on feelings, but on our coming into union with the resurrected Christ—not just any Christ, but He who is God and man at once.
Our conversion experiences vary considerably. Paul faced a dramatic conversion, while Timothy grew into the faith. On the day of Pentecost, Peter made sure that conversion and faith were not mixed. He affirmed the people's response as a gift from God (Acts 2:17-21), but he immediately preached the resurrected Christ (2:22-36). This pattern is followed throughout Acts.
Our tendency as evangelicals to overemphasize our personal experience has some of its roots in the church's reactions to rationalism and liberalism. Rather than emphasizing the facts our faith is founded on, verifying the gospel became largely a
MOODY / MARCH 1985
matter of our own experience.
We can see this in the words of some gospel songs that have little to do with the gospel itself: "He lives within my heart," "Love lifted me," and "Since I have been redeemed." Religious television and Christian magazines and biographies also often confuse the gospel with someone's experience of it.
Our risk of being taken in by a cult is compounded because we often define spirituality on the basis of such individual elements as devotions, prayer, evangelism, and Bible study rather than the whole of our lives. We are to live our total lives obediently before Christ—in our families, jobs, thoughts, prayers, evangelism, and relationships.
Spiritual leading. Evangelicals are easily manipulated by anything that hints at spirituality. One of our most popular statements is "The Lord led me."
At first, this sounds very spiritual, but it is seldom used in Scripture. On occasion, however, it is used to deceive. In 1 Kings 13, a false prophet deceived a man of God with such a phrase. Jacob did the same with Isaac (Gen. 27:20).
God does lead us, but these words are often overused.
One spring at Gordon College I received more than 20 letters from musical group leaders, pastors, and evangelists who had been "led of the Lord" to minister in New England during the first half of October, the peak of the fall colors. But God never seems to lead ministers to New England in February.
If all these people were truly led, then Gordon College should have canceled classes for a week in October to hold 20 chapel services.
All cultic leaders and churches that became cultic placed a high emphasis on being "led by the Lord." Our own misuse of this term can make us prey to cultic tendencies. And it can become a tool to manipulate others or to avoid responsibility for the decisions God places before us. To misuse it can border on taking God's name in vain.
Idealism and legalism. Evangelicals also tend toward legalism in our definitions of spirituality. Because our churches never live up to our expectations of the ideal spiritual church, we can become frustrated with them.
We can then be attracted to situations that promise or offer a more nearly perfect spiritual community. We can forget that "perfect" communities can come about at the expense of truth or freedom.
We often look to the New Testament church as our model Christian community, but it was not an ideal church. It had doctrinal and racial problems. On occasions, it overlooked sexual abuse and struggled with legalism. In one case it abused the communion service with drunkenness.
Perhaps we should read Scripture before we boast of being another "New Testament church." And we must be careful not to adhere more legalistically to the ways of the New Testament church than we do to the gospel.
Evangelicals also tend to yoke our definitions of spirituality with certain cultural convictions. For many, these "don'ts," which are ignored or barely mentioned in Scripture, become more important than moral issues and commandments clearly presented in God's Word.
This kind of perspective has made many Christians vulnerable to cults. Most cults hold to "evangelical" convictions against the use of tobacco and alcohol and other worldly habits. They offer familiar, but more intense group commitment. This gives a sense of security on the surface, but not a security rooted in God's Word and grace.
Here are some practical guidelines for dealing with subjective standards and legalism:
1. Be cautious when you hear "The
Lord led me."
2. Learn to listen intently to a ser
mon and reflect on its content. Resist
responding to emotional stories; in
stead, ask if they clarify the passage.
We can evaluate a speaker's words
by Scripture, but there are no such
checks and balances concerning
3. Check that Scripture passages
are used in their correct context.
4. Evaluate whether you get upset
over Christians who do something
you do not approve of culturally. Do
you also condemn gossip, exaggera
tion, or other clear violations of Scrip
5. Consider how you define spiri
tuality. Is it in terms of devotions, or in
terms of living under the authority of
Christ and His Word?
Expectations of an Ideal Pastor
I often receive job descriptions from churches seeking pastors. Some of their expectations might as well require that he take yearly mission trips to Africa without the aid of a boat or plane!
A man who fills all the expectations of an ideal pastor risks being the main focus of the church. Recently two large evangelical churches, one on the East Coast and the other on the West, were granted loans for new sanctuaries with the stipulation that the pastor promise to stay for an extended period.
This indicts the direction our churches are taking. Almost every large, successful church or para-church is built around a single individual. We seem to want a dynamic personality to be our authority figure.
About 15 years ago I had contact with a youth missions organization in Europe. On arrival, each team member was given a "victory sheet" that said never to question those in authority or write anything negative to those at home. This certainly is not the biblical model.
We seem to long for a successful, bionic pastor whose church can market him in a cassette ministry. Unfortunately, bionic people are half machine. Unlike Scripture, their biographies tell only of successes and ideal images to be followed. Such images of perfection border on idolatry.
This attitude toward a pastor can make our churches resemble cults more than we would like to think. Most cult leaders exude charisma and personality. They seem to be the ideal pastor in the ideal church.
And like members of cults, evangelicals can have difficulty admitting our own sins because we desire to be the ideal. We tend to justify our behavior, spiritualize it, or blame the church structure.
Inability to deal with our own sins and weaknesses, coupled with our vision for the ideal, makes us vulnerable to cultic-type leaders who give the image of successful and sinless leadership. These guidelines may help us deal with the unspoken leadership expectations we may hold:
1. Keep in mind that all persons of authority in Scripture were vulnerable to sin. Moses struck the rock; David
MOODY / MARCH 1985
needed Nathan's confrontation; and even after Pentecost, Peter needed Paul's rebuke.
2. Ask to whom your pastor is
accountable. Can your pastor deal
with his weaknesses, and does he
know his limitations?
3. Remember John's words, "If we
say that we have no sin, we are
deceiving ourselves, and the truth is
not in us" (1 John 1:8).
4. Remember that Christian bio
graphies are written with marketing in
mind. They often tell only one side,
but the Bible is frank about difficulties
in the lives of God's leaders.
5. Know that the purpose of the
body of Christ is to equip us for a
better ministry. None of us has arrived
yet. Even your own pastor, popular
evangelists, and media preachers
may be vulnerable to manipulative
tactics and exaggerations.
Choice and Guidance
Both evangelicals and cults place tremendous emphasis on guidance. Many cults favor group choice over personal choice or emphasize choices aided by a shepherd, leader, spiritual parent, or discipler.
Although many exciting things are happening with discipleship in evangelical churches, there are some dangers of abuse. Many current evangelical trends toward shepherding and discipline encourage having the leader make decisions for you.
Cultic leaders often build their systems for guidance and authority on Bible verses taken out of context. Many of our churches also emphasize one aspect of Scripture, excluding the rest.
The result is that some churches are built on body life, but lack in worship; others are built on discipleship, but fail to allow diversity. Some are based on evangelism, prophecy, or issues in Scripture.
This can lead to an identity of opposition to the rest of the body of Christ and move us out from under the authority of all of Scripture, Almost every cult began with an approach to Scripture that focused on one aspect of the Bible at the exclusion of the rest.
These pointers can help you keep decision-making practices in their proper perspective:
1. On judgment day, your shep
herd or spiritual parent will not be
there to give an account for you.
2. The Bible is not a book of magic
promises that can be pulled out of context. A single verse is not always a complete thought. All promises, even ones we pull from our promise boxes, must be seen in the context of its passage. "I can do all things through Christ" (Phil. 4:13) is written in the context of Paul's saying he is content amid success or failure. And the context of "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) says it is God who works in you.
3. If all the teaching you receive is founded on just one aspect of God's truth, you are at high risk of becoming cultic. Paul declared "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Seek balance in your church.
Both cult members and evangelicals place a high emphasis on sharing. But when the sharing of our deep personal concerns is raised to a sign of spiritual maturity, we can move toward a cultic group mentality.
Sharing for the sake of sharing can easily lead to group manipulation, exploitation, and autocratic control. Cults, like evangelicals, emphasize devotions, evangelism, self-denial, sharing, and prayer as outward signs of spirituality.
When sharing, be mindful of these points:
1. In Scripture, secret sins are al
ways dealt with secretly. In the Ser
mon on the Mount, Christ warns us to
go into the closet to pray, not to come
out of it (Matt. 6:6). The psalmist says
he couldn't share his despair with
others without harming them (73:15).
Jesus tells us that if someone has
wronged us, we should confront him
privately (Matt. 18:15). Likewise, in
Scripture, public sins were dealt with
publicly—as Paul dealt -with Peter
2. Sharing is abused when it be
comes a subtle way of gossiping.
3. Protect others' privacy. If a friend
is having difficulty, ask his permission
before sharing his needs with the
4. The Bible tells us to confess our
sins, not our neighbor's, to one an
other (James 5:16).
Authority or Independence
Cults see themselves as independent. They offer both uniformity and identity by their opposition to other groups.
Many of our evangelical churches
were also established as a reaction— to liberalism or after a split from a church that didn't emphasize what we felt should be emphasized.
Evangelicals rarely belong to a church with a tradition of authority. Instead we tend to pride ourselves on our independence.
But of whom are we independent—God, Christ, the rest of the body of Christ? "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Cor. 12:21).
We can possibly even identify with an apparently Christian cult in our efforts to oppose a church we're dissatisfied with. Our own independent attitudes make it easy for us always to be looking for a community that promises something better or superior to the one we are presently in.
Coupled with this independence is our confusion between unity and uniformity. We often long for uniformity: Baptist with Baptists, high church with high churches, charismatic with charismatics, and 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 diversity God offers us within the body of Christ, as well as a blindness to our own tendencies to write off the other members of the body of Christ. We subtly remove our responsibility to "have love for one another" (John 13:35).
To counteract possible vulnerability to cults on this point, consider the following:
1. How much of your Christian
identity is defined by opposition to
liberals, Baptists, charismatics, etc.
2. If you call yourself "indepen
dent," define the term in light of
1 Corinthians 12:12-21.
3. Remember the New Testament
church was diverse. Would you be
willing to sing, "We are different in the
4. Choose to build relationships
with Christians who come from differ
ent backgrounds. For example, if you
are a Baptist, get to know a few
charismatics; if you are a Nazarene,
consciously build relationships with
Evangelicals are seldom drawn to cults because of beliefs or doctrine, but because in one of these areas the cults offer something more. If we think we are not vulnerable, then we are most vulnerable. ■
MOODY / MARCH 1985
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